New Technology Needed at NASA
It is clear that NASA’s plan to use existing technology for its long-term exploration goals is at best non-visionary and at worst a dead end for sustained space exploration. Like the development of the shuttle before it, Project Constellation meets short-term budget constraints and satisfies key stakeholders at the expense of long-term operational effectiveness.
According to Scott Horowitz [ “Charting a New Course for NASA’s Exploration Program,” Profile, Nov. 21, page 22], getting back to the Moon is a “systems engineering problem, not a technology problem.” I submit that it is indeed a technology problem, just like our increasingly ineffective and polluting terrestrial transportation systems that are based on century-old technologies. To develop an effective, sustainable space exploration system, NASA must look to truly visionary technologies now, not later.
For example, electromagnetic launch systems could help reduce long-term launch costs for both manned and unmanned payloads. In fact, this technology would be well-suited to support NASA’s proposed orbiting fuel depot by launching low-mass (i.e., low-hazard) fuel modules to low Earth orbit with very high launch rates.
There are many other technologies worth considering that NASA has effectively shut the door on. The emphasis on the short-term goal of returning to the Moon using on-hand technology ( for example, solid rocket boosters and external tanks ) will, by default and budget, predefine the architecture for Mars exploration (assuming we get that far).
By ignoring the possibilities afforded by new technologies, NASA is condemning its “vision” to remain in the past.
(Name withheld upon request)