Editorial: Reshape the Message

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In a Nov. 1 address to a workshop held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin opened what promises to be a long and occasionally contentious dialog with the agency’s overseas counterparts on the role they might play in a U.S.-led effort to return astronauts to the Moon late in the next decade.

Mr. Griffin’s going-in position is that the United States will take care of the transportation and other enabling elements of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, while other nations would build things like lunar laboratories, power-generation facilities and telescopes that could be transported by the space transportation infrastructure NASA intends to build.

NASA’s prospective partners are heavily focused these days on the more-immediate priority of getting their hardware deployed to the international space station. But to the extent that they have taken a serious look at their possible role in manned exploration beyond Earth orbit, it appears doubtful that they would want to limit themselves to the so-called off-ramps of what Mr. Griffin calls the space highway. In all likelihood, they are going to want a piece of the highway itself.

It is easy to see where NASA is coming from. After all, the United States has more resources than any other nation on Earth; spends far more on space than anyone else has been willing to at this point; and is the only nation to have landed people on the Moon.

But even in touting the United States as the only nation with the “discretionary financial resources” to build the transportation systems for exploring the Moon, Mr. Griffin conceded that the investment would effectively break America’s bank, leaving the country unable to do much once it got there.

Since by that logic there is little point in returning to the Moon solo, it follows that the United States is not in the best position to dictate the terms of participation by others. NASA will have to compromise, and that means sharing the so-called critical-path elements of lunar exploration.

Because their primary concern today is the international space station, the space agencies of Europe and Japan have been reluctant to publicly criticize NASA’s position. But it is hard to imagine the scenario painted by Mr. Griffin being something they would ultimately accept.

In the first place, the space station experience provides a powerful argument against exclusive reliance on one nation or one system for critical logistical services. NASA’s space shuttle is the perfect example.

Plans originally called for the shuttle to be the sole workhorse for space station assembly and crew transportation. Assembly now has been on hold for some three years due to the February 2003 Columbia disaster and will not resume until mid-2006 at the earliest. And if it were not for Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles, the partially assembled space station would be unoccupied and might even have re-entered the atmosphere by now.

As it is, Europe and Japan are wondering if their respective space station modules, built to launch on shuttles and nothing else, will ever take their assigned places at the orbital outpost. NASA remains committed to launching this long-delayed hardware, but Europe and Japan probably cannot help but regret the shuttle-based design decisions dating back two decades. That said, it is a situation partly of their own making. Europe abandoned development of the Hermes space plane and Japan abandoned development of its own space plane for budget reasons — a familiar problem for every nation involved in space activity.

NASA has some regrets of its own. After all, if it were not obliged to launch the European and Japanese hardware, NASA could seriously contemplate retiring the space shuttle fleet before 2010 and have plenty of money to accelerate the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and other systems needed to return to the Moon.

Budgets aside, Europe and Japan are very technologically advanced and more than capable of building lunar transportation systems. Meanwhile, China has become the third country with an independent capability to put people into orbit, and India has firmly established itself as a full-fledged spacefaring nation. And while its space program is not what it was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia retains tremendous technical capabilities and know-how that could be put to use exploring the Moon.

It is perfectly appropriate for NASA to develop the basic transportation systems for lunar exploration, including the CEV, the planned Crew Launch Vehicle and a heavy-lift launcher. But it is always prudent to have backup systems, especially if the intent in going back to the Moon is to do more than demonstrate humankind’s ability to repeat past feats. The idea is to go back to stay. Even if no permanently occupied settlement is created, there should be frequent trips to the Moon or there is no point in going back. The best approach would be to have multiple ways to get future astronauts and supplies to and from the Moon.

Another role Europe could play is participating in the NASA-developed systems, including the CEV. The Franco-Italian firm Alcatel Alenia Space is on the Northrop Grumman-Boeing team competing to build the CEV. In a recent and troubling development, however, Europe’s EADS Space Transportation is no longer on Lockheed Martin’s CEV team. According to one industry source, EADS’s departure was driven in part by a perception that NASA does not want non-U.S. companies building critical elements of the exploration infrastructure.

True or not, that would be consistent with the message that came across in Mr. Griffin’s speech. Granted, the multilateral dialogue that will shape the various national roles in the Vision for Space Exploration has not begun in any real sense, but it is not too early for NASA to take a deep breath and reconsider its message.