The next president of the United States may have the last opportunity to do something no administration has ever done: define a rationale for an American human space program that is long-term and open-ended.
This program has surged, then lurched and sputtered for more than 50 years. President John F. Kennedy’s objective was to beat the Russians. We did. Richard M. Nixon signed off on the space shuttle on false promises of $180 per kilogram to orbit and the capability of capturing Russian satellites (and to avoid being responsible for ending the greatest symbol of American exceptionalism since World War II). Ronald Reagan signed off on the space station to give the shuttle a destination and as a tool to support international cooperation. George H.W. Bush proposed the Space Exploration Initiative (back to the Moon, this time to stay, then on to Mars). It collapsed in the face of trillion-dollar cost estimates. George W. Bush defined his Vision for Space Exploration to return to the Moon. He restructured NASA but never requested the required funds from Congress to fund his plan.
When it entered office, the administration of President Barack Obama was faced with a train wreck (one of several) in the space program. A huge infusion of funds into NASA for the Bush initiative was not possible. At the same time, the transition from the shuttle to a follow-on capability was to leave the U.S. without independent crewed access to space. The “flexible path” the administration chose effectively kicked the can down the road well beyond an anticipated second Obama term, embracing a “terminal target” — Mars — as its ultimate goal, with the intermediate step of a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid. Unfortunately, a “terminal target” envisions nothing beyond and is basically a “flags and footprints” scenario.
In difficult economic times, coincident with a particularly low ebb of flight activity, it is possible for the American human space program to come to an end. It is expensive as performance art. Perhaps as long as tourists could be commercially flown on a suborbital arc, an administration could take credit for American exceptionalism being preserved.
Many space advocates have desired a return to big NASA budgets to restore the excitement of the 1960s. The lesson they took from that period is that you need an Apollo-like program with an ambitious (but dead-end) goal, such as returning to the Moon or going to Mars. This is the wrong lesson. The excitement of the 1960s was not driven by the thought of beating the Russians to the Moon (though this was sufficient for Congress to appropriate the funds needed). People were caught up in the idea that this was the “Dawn of the Space Age,” that space represented a new American frontier that ultimately would be experienced by everyone — not just test pilots, but regular people. This had a profound effect on American culture and optimism about the future. We were recapturing something fundamental about ourselves and expanding the American dream.
People thought this was all inevitable. They would wake up one day, look outside and see the Jetsons. After the Moon landing, it became apparent that nothing was happening beyond repeating the feat. People were quickly bored. Under the budgetary pressure of the Vietnam War, support for continued high levels of funding quickly waned. The rest was not the history envisioned less than a decade earlier.
I think there is a rationale that could capture the imagination of the American people and personally reconnect them to our national endeavor: to answer the question of whether humanity has a future beyond Earth, and if it does, to lead the way and ensure that American values are planted in that future. This is an optimistic vision, creating positive options for the American population, economy and culture.
“Whether” and “if” are important here. We cannot guarantee a specific outcome. Explorers push into the unknown. The United States is the only country in the world — perhaps for the next couple of decades — that can address this fundamental question and take advantage of what we learn. We still have the industrial base, and we still have an unparalleled and deep bench of scientists and engineers with the required knowledge and skills.
What needs to be done?
We need to determine if Earth life (including us) can thrive in lunar and/or martian gravities. A centrifuge on the international space station, analogous to the one canceled in 2005, could run these experiments — including mammals — over a number of years. If the outcome is negative, it would highlight the importance of preserving the one planet on which we might live. We would face the challenge, and choice, of engineering options to redefine what it would mean to be a spacefaring species.
In parallel, we need to identify recoverable resources such as water, likely from near-Earth objects (carbonaceous asteroids and dormant or extinct comets) in accessible orbits, that could be economically utilized to support a relatively self-sustainable space transportation system. We cannot afford to bring everything we need for expanded space activity up from the gravity well of the Earth. Identifying resource objects would require a relatively inexpensive, space-based survey telescope based on the recent Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer mission (an effort already being laid out for finding targets for the currently contemplated human mission to an asteroid). There also would be new technologies to be developed such as automated resource extraction for which the space station would be the logical test platform.
Such a long-term, open-ended rationale for American human exploration would:
- Provide focus and direction to an essentially rudderless program, giving much-needed context within which programmatic plans, such as launch systems and human transport vehicles, could be defined and decisions made.
- Create an expectation of continued investment in a high-profile, high-tech industry (and science), improving confidence in that industry and work force.
- Allow for expenditures at a rate that fits the state of the economy, while still advancing the objectives of American human exploration regardless of pace.
- Make possible continued and substantive American leadership and a legacy that would rival and probably surpass that of John F. Kennedy. After all, if everything works out and humanity expands beyond Earth, hundreds of years from now people would look to a speech given by the next president as the pivot point that created their future.
Mark V. Sykes is chief executive and director of the Planetary Science Institute.