Christine Darden joined NASA in 1967 as one of the mathematicians who performed calculations for the space agency. She later became an engineer and expert on sonic boom prediction, minimization and supersonic wing design during her 40-year NASA career. Credit: NASA

SAN FRANCISCO – The United States has the advanced technology and capable workforce it needs for further space exploration. However, it lacks the focus and prioritization that assured the success of the Apollo program, Apollo flight director Gene Kranz told Senators July 9.

“We have an administration that is strongly supportive of space and willing to provide the resources,” Kranz said July 9 at a Senate Commerce science and transportation subcommittee hearing. “We have an agency charted to do the mission, top level leadership in place and a very capable workforce. But each of the segments are philosophically divided on the goal.” Without greater unity, the U.S. space exploration program “will be grounded,” he added.

Kranz was one of the NASA veterans and industry leaders who discussed the Apollo program and the benefits and challenges of future missions at the hearing, “NASA Exploration Plans: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going.”

NASA plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 and to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 through the Artemis program. To achieve those goals, NASA will need $1.6 billion in additional funding in 2020 and an additional $4 billion to $6 billion per year above current funding levels after that, said Mary Lynne Dittmar, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration president and CEO.

“While funding increases are always a political challenge, it is worth noting that the benefits of ten times that amount in adjusted dollars invested in the Apollo program are evident to all, and form the foundation both for today’s national effort and for the growing entrepreneurial sector,” Dittmar said.

One of important benefit of Apollo was its impact on the U.S. workforce, Christine Darden, former NASA Langley Research Center strategic communications and education director, told the panel. Similarly, Artemis could prompt students to seek careers in science, technology, engineering and math, said Darden, a retired NASA mathematician, data analyst and aeronautical engineer.

“Sadly, after Apollo ended, there was a decline in the number of students getting degrees in STEM areas,” Darden said. “A thriving, visible Artemis program will do much to inspire the next generation to pursue STEM careers.”

Dittmar said future space exploration missions will have important geopolitical ramifications as well.

“No longer in a race to the Moon with the Soviets, United States leadership in space depends upon creating a foundation that provides other nations and a nascent space-based economy with security and assurance regarding our national intentions and long-term commitment to aspire, inspire and achieve – in short, to lead human space exploration and the development of space,” Dittmar said. “If we do not do this, rest assured that someone else will. Space remains a strategic, competitive domain between nations.”

The Space Launch System, Orion crew vehicle and Exploration Ground Systems form “the foundation upon which national goals in human deep space exploration will rest for the foreseeable future,” Dittmar said. “Similar to the development of military capabilities, these are long lead-time national assets sustained as a guarantee against economic downturn, policy shifts and as a message to the global community.”

Eric Stallmer, Commercial Spaceflight Federation president, suggested future U.S. space activities could diverge from those of the Apollo era by relying more on the innovation of commercial firms.

Infrastructure in low Earth orbit, operational elements of future lunar missions and most elements of the architecture necessary for Mars missions should either be purchased commercially or developed with industry through programs like the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, a public-private partnership to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, Stallmer said.

“NASA should specify clear, high-level, outcome-based requirements and allow entrepreneurs to innovate and create affordable and basic capabilities to meet essentially all the operational needs,” he told the committee. “And NASA must pay for results, not effort on all developmental programs but the most esoteric technical challenges. Whenever possible NASA should award multiple, competitively chosen funded Space Act Agreements to commercial partners willing to put up private capital at their own risk.”

If NASA adopts this model of partnerships and competition, the space agency will no longer pay for the “costly micromanagement and bureaucracy” of typical contracts awarded under Federal Acquisition Regulations, Stallmer said.

Homer Hickam, former NASA engineer and “Rocket Boys” author, suggested the United States take another approach to reducing the cost of space exploration. The United States should return to the moon and “set up shop to utilize its mineral wealth and discover all that is there,” including possible evidence of life. “We’re going to find a lot of water ice on the moon and in there may be evidence of life,” Hickam said.

While he applauds the essential elements of the Artemis program, Hickam said NASA’s lunar program “must make sense to the American people both economically and philosophically.” If U.S. taxpayers agree to pay the up-front cost of future lunar missions, they should know that lunar exploration eventually will more than pay for itself, he said. “The riches on the moon should be gathered to boost our economy and thus put money in the pockets of all Americans,” Hickam said.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...