Feb. 20 marked the 50th anniversary of the first American manned flight into Earth orbit, when John Glenn was launched atop a modified Atlas ICBM, tightly cocooned inside the Mercury capsule. It was a memorable day for me, as I was propulsion engineer for that flight. In the ensuing years the manned program included four additional Mercury flights; 19 Gemini launches, of which 10 were unmanned; 11 crewed Apollo missions; three crewed Skylab missions; one Apollo-Soyuz Test Project; 36 space shuttle flights to construct and service the international space station; and approximately 90 orbital flights with the shuttle functioning as a payload carrier for NASA, commercial and Department of Defense missions.

These are all formidable achievements, by any measure. Still, a perceptive observer of the space programs over those years must wonder a bit at the contrast between the highly productive, multiple missions undertaken by the unmanned segment of NASA, operating with budgets a fraction of the manned program, and the more elusive products of the manned program. One can’t help but notice that over those 50 years since Glenn’s flight, the United States has kept an average of less than one astronaut in space. We aren’t going to conquer space with one person on the job.

There seems to be a lack of public awareness, and indeed a lack of congressional awareness, that space activities divide into two general categories: space exploration and space exploitation.

Exploration is what the unmanned sector of NASA does superbly. The unfolding of knowledge about the solar system with probes, telescopes and robots, together with almost daily revelations about the vastness and composition of the universe, is breathtaking. There are hundreds of millions of Earth-like planets — until recently we had no idea. Within Congress there is even a lack of concern regarding the importance of space exploration. Despite the fact that the entire NASA budget is only about half of 1 percent of the federal budget, Congress has seized on the James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, as a program that should be axed, an action that is clearly political, and borderline reprehensible for a nation in the forefront of space exploration.

The goal of space exploration is clear — to generate knowledge. In contrast, the goal of space exploitation is to identify and initiate operations in areas that offer the prospect of providing goods, improved services, a unique work environment for research, and anything else that visionaries and entrepreneurs see as an opportunity for profit.

The role of exploitation falls naturally within the purview of manned missions, although cases can be cited where humans in space were not involved. The U.S. government may fund a development, essentially a pathfinder mission, until events converge so that commercial firms can take over and make a profit. The first pathfinder mission was performed by NASA, beginning with Telstar, before there was a manned space program. It confirmed Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions that communications satellites placed in geosynchronous orbit could produce a sea change in global communications. Commercial firms soon moved in and the result is the ongoing multibillion-dollar enterprise that is the array of services now being provided by stationary satellites. Another example is the GPS system, a constellation of positioning, navigation and timing satellites developed and placed into operation by the Department of Defense. The addition of a strong civilian signal kicked off enormously varied terrestrial applications.

An unfortunate turn of events resulting in a loss of direction took place with the wind-down of the Apollo program. “On to Mars” was the euphoric call after the last Apollo flight, and even before the program’s conclusion. A wet blanket was thrown over the whole manned program when the price tag was revealed and Congress balked. Adhering to its role in exploiting space for humanity’s benefit, a logical course for Apollo Phase 2 would have been a return to the Moon to search for high-value minerals, following which, in the course of time, terrestrial mining concerns would take over. The Apollo mission was NASA’s Lewis & Clark expedition, but unfortunately not as enduring.

As it happened, a second opportunity for a pathfinder mission immediately occurred, when NASA elected to use remaining hardware from the Apollo program to build the Skylab workshop. The program should have continued. It could have been the forerunner to colonies of orbital workstations and tourist destinations funded by private |interests.

The rest is history — NASA departed from its role as exploiter of space to that of a transporter of payloads by taking up development of the space shuttle. The end product, the international space station (ISS), built after transporting payloads turned prohibitively expensive, does fit the exploitation role with the exception that it is dead-ended. No one is going to build another ISS.

Now, with NASA’s eyes on a mission that would take astronauts to the surface of an asteroid, it appears that pathfinder missions will be put off for some time. High adventure seems to be a more powerful draw.

Worthy pathfinder missions could be:

  • Return to the Moon with the object of finding valuable resources such as rare earth minerals, setting up refining prototypes using solar power, and laying the ground work for terrestrial mining companies to take over.
  • Build a solar power system demonstrator, including both orbital and ground elements. Confirm or adjust the findings in extensive previous studies. Lay the groundwork for utilities companies to invest and take over.
  • Return to the Skylab mode of space station — smaller workshops of varying applications, serving the needs of other nations as well as the United States. Lay the groundwork for private industry, as well as hotel and tourist enterprises, to invest and take over.

Space exploitation will serve America best if there is promise of return in both quality of life improvement and financial gain. That, for the present, is the proper role for manned space operations. It is worth emphasizing that NASA’s role is to identify and perform the pathfinder missions. The federal government’s role is to approve and fund opportunities and burn down the risks to the point that commercial takeover is attractive.

Finally, more adventurous missions like a trip to an asteroid, a martian moon or Mars itself can and should wait until the capability of sensors and robots is exhausted. Staying on the present path, with one or two astronauts doing duty in space, offers a low prospect of conquering space, and the cost will continue to be very high.


Edward Hujsak is the author of two books on rockets: “The Future of U.S. Rocketry” and “All About Rocket Engines.”