Recently I was listening to a congressional hearing on the future of NASA and I was amazed that such talented people don’t yet have a clear view of the long-term mission of the space agency. It is bad because it gives the public the false impression that we are going nowhere, and therefore many people may lose interest.
Nevertheless it was clear that the Space Launch System, Orion capsule and landing systems on other worlds are the top priority for our mission beyond Earth orbit. This part is good; we need it because all these tools evolve and lead to new technologies unknown today.
As for the long-term mission of NASA, here are my thoughts.
The only way mankind will survive in the long term is to learn to live in confinement. It is a matter of time until the climate will severely change, and if we are not prepared we will die.
We need to learn on Earth for many reasons. We already have learned much from the Biosphere 2 experiment performed near Tucson, Ariz., in the 1990s.
We need to learn to live in confinement on Earth orbit: The international space station is doing a good job of this.
We need to go back to the Moon to learn to live in confinement there. It is not too far away and therefore a safe place to begin.
We need to learn to live in confinement on an asteroid, on Mars, on Ganymede, and so on.
Beyond our solar system we will find plenty of Earth-size dark worlds we don’t know exist today. On these worlds we will need to learn to live in confinement — before we learn how to get to the next stars.
The conclusion is clear: The long-term mission of NASA is not to go somewhere and come back as we did in the early days with the Apollo program; instead, the mission is to go somewhere and stay and do long-term science at these remote, carefully selected places. To do this properly, we need to set the correct goals, invite our international partners to get right resources, and have a sustained program that will lead to stunning discoveries and new possibilities.
Francis F. Pitard