It is time to reconsider whether we really want to go ahead with the Constellation program to send astronauts to the Moon and back. Many of us in the space community would be eager to have a chance to recreate the thrill of Apollo. However, from the public’s standpoint, going back to the Moon in 2020 would not invoke the same sense of awe and inspiration it did 51 years earlier when it was a seemingly impossible task.
Recent opinion polls show that the public is only lukewarm about spending upwards of $45 billion and the next 12 to 15 years to go back there again.
It is clear that we will not see significant increases in the NASA budget for the foreseeable future. Therefore, it is very important that NASA’s programs are aimed at things that will be of most benefit to over the next few years.
The Moon project alone will take considerably more time and money than currently planned, and will continue to cannibalize all other parts of NASA’s limited budget – robotic exploration, science, applications, education, technology development and aeronautics – especially in the near term as the Constellation program is currently facing significant technical problems, budget overruns and schedule slips.
The Moon project is a very expensive and lengthy diversion from a long-term goal of a human expedition to an asteroid or to Mars.
In the near term, inspiration and real economically valuable results can come from meaningful human flights and accomplishments at the the international space station (ISS). NASA can concentrate on a balanced program of aeronautics, robotic exploration, technology, energy and the environment, and do it all within the budget they are likely to get.
One definition of exploration is “finding out what is there.” As exemplified by the two magnificent rovers currently on Mars, robotic spacecraft are doing this job today at much less cost than human exploration missions. An enhanced robotic exploration program would enable a lot more true exploration about other places beyond Earth orbit, and at no risk to human life.
Regarding technology development for the future, critical systems development and qualification necessary for lengthy future manned missions beyond Earth orbit to an asteroid or eventually to Mars can be done better, quicker, cheaper and safer on the ISS. These include recyclable water and food, ion and other advanced propulsion, electric power generation, better hygiene systems, recyclable environmental systems, in-flight repair techniques and advanced robotics.
The Constellation plan is to close down the shuttle at a time when there is no replacement for ‘s manned flights to space for at least five years and probably for six to eight years or more. After that, when the Ares/Orion starts to operate, there will be major safety issues for several years.
It is very important that the shuttle remain flying until a new cheaper and safer manned launch system is available and proven, as I outline in a Commentary piece earlier this year [“When to Retire Shuttle? – Safety Considerations,” Jan. 5, page 19].
If it is to be launched from NASA’s in , any new launcher, whether it be Ares 5 or another, should be configured to be compatible with parallel operations of the shuttle.
If we end up with zero manned launch capability for five to eight years, and are forced to buy flights from for our own astronauts, ‘s image around the world and at home would suffer, and many people would begin to question ‘s leadership in technology. The American people will resent sending U.S. dollars and jobs to when we need those dollars and jobs here at home.
Inspiration and optimism are more important than ever in these difficult economic times. The NASA space program at one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget is truly a bargain for , and many Americans can say, “The NASA space program is one thing the federal government does that I am proud of.”
O Glenn Smith, Ph.D., is a former manager of Systems Engineering for the Space Shuttle at NASA’s in