Today the U.S. space program is laboring under a set of unrealistic goals because the present leaders in the White House, Congress and NASA are ignoring the environment the nation faces and the history of canceled space initiatives over the past 30 years. It really doesn’t have to be that way.
To be specific, the present concept to initiate a large-scale rocket with the plan to land on an asteroid in 2025 and travel to Mars in 2035 is not a realistic goal. The national budget will not support the cost and the technology required to accomplish these objectives. The money is simply not available, nor will it be anytime soon. The studies that have been conducted over many years by both NASA and other groups support this conclusion. Therefore, as time passes, it will become painfully obvious that this approach is unrealistic and overly expensive, and it will likely meet the same fate that other large NASA projects have in recent decades and be canceled.
If one looks around, there are obvious ways to formulate a rational and economic set of goals that could produce a meaningful human space exploration program and meet the budget limitations the United States faces over the next two decades. That is, the assets already available in both the U.S. and the rest of the world should be the starting basis upon which plans could be formulated. This approach would in itself dictate the program. In addition, it would benefit from the experience base of the way in which the international space station (ISS) came to pass. Europe, Russia, Canada, Japan, India and others who want to participate would be very supportive of this idea and have in recent months been trying to influence the U.S. to utilize the ISS blueprint that has been so successful.
The U.S. and the world already have a large set of space assets — both human and machines — that can be immediately utilized. NASA engineers and scientists and the aerospace industry are full of innovative and unique ideas on how to use these vehicles. The Europeans and Russians along with other nations are just waiting to be asked to join in to a world consortium to return to the Moon and there develop a semi-permanent base.
The Moon’s resources are many, and we need to exploit this nearby satellite. A set of outward-looking instruments to search the universe from the backside of the Moon would begin to uncover secrets of the universe not viewable by other means. The possibilities of generating electrical power on the Moon and transporting that power back to Earth are promising. The water recently discovered on the Moon portends a capability to produce many substances that have a large number of uses, including supporting the humans to mine these assets. The material resources may indeed supplement those needed on Earth. The future uses of the Moon and its vicinity as a launching pad to further explore the planets and the universe beyond are boundless.
So come on NASA, wake up! Take the lid off and turn loose the human resources you already have in place. Most of these bright people came to NASA excited about the future, about going back to the Moon to stay and becoming a part of what could be another renaissance in space.
Building a great big rocket is not a necessary expenditure at this time. In fact, the budget that will be consumed by this big rocket will prevent NASA from any meaningful human exploration for at least the next decade and probably beyond. We don’t have to march in place while we wait for the powers that be to cancel it. Let’s be innovative; let’s wake up the sleeping giant and have at returning to the Moon right now.
Christopher C. Kraft is former director of NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.