In response to Donald Beattie’s reopened discussion of our nation’s vision for space exploration [“Letter: Are NASA’s Space Exploration Goals Right?” July 10, page 18], I think it’s important to look at the fundamental characteristics of true exploration. As demonstrated by Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, and most recently Wernher von Braun, true exploration requires two lead roles: the undaunted explorer with a vision and a true desire to go where no one has ever gone before; and the financier to make it happen.
It’s interesting to note that the motivations of the explorer and the financier do not have to be consistent. Take Sergei P. Korolev for example. He was funded for developing missiles, but managed to squeeze Sputnik into the project, consistent with his own vision of space exploration. So, how does this view of exploration relate to our current situation? To answer this, I think we need to look at the motivations of both the explorer and the financier.
The first question is, who is the explorer, and what is that explorer’s motivation? In the absence of von Braun, who now leads our nation’s vision for exploration? Personally, I think it’s most likely Robert Zubrin. After reading the Case for Mars, I am convinced he has a clear vision for exploration. It is a vision motivated by a desire to explore the unexplored, to explore new methods of exploration, and truly a vision that will challenge a whole new generation of Americans.
On the other hand, perhaps we don’t have a single explorer identified at this time. Perhaps he or she is waiting in the wings, just looking for an opportunity to be heard. If that’s the case, then we must find that person. I’m convinced that exploration by committee is not going to achieve much.
What about the financier? Clearly, it is Congress. Congress must answer to the American public, and I think it’s safe to say that space exploration is not high on the nation’s list of programs to fund. The only reason it ever was high on the list had so much more to do with our nation’s security than it did exploration. Is our nation’s current security, standard of living or prominence in the world dependent on our space exploration endeavors? Since we are the leading nation in space exploration, I would say not. So, what is the motivation then?
There are certainly a number of secondary reasons to maintain a space exploration program:
Motivate new generations to pursue degrees/careers in science and technology.
Develop new technologies that can be applied to E arthbound problems.
Continue to expand our knowledge of the universe, and the beginnings of our own solar system .
As great as these sound, they are still secondary motivations. Therefore, we should expect secondary funding.
The key then, is to find an exploration strategy that is most consistent with the motivations of the explorer and the financier. This strategy should involve exploration of new places, not the old stomping ground. It should involve the development of new technologies that allow us to explore in methods we have not already used , such as in-situ resource utilization. It should allow us to learn more about our solar system, such as we would learn from searching for life on another planet.
At the same time, it must be funded at a relatively slow and steady rate, consistent with the secondary level of importance in the eyes of the financier. This requires focus and creative use of resources. Instead of the huge flotilla of ships bound for Mars first envisioned by von Braun, what about a building-block approach, allowing us to spread exploration costs over a longer period of time? Instead of returning to the Moon, how about sending a chemical plant to Mars to explore our ability to generate fuel, oxygen and water on another planet? That is true exploration and doesn’t require primary level funding.
Whatever is decided, I think the success of the program will depend on how well it satisfies the motivations of both the explorer and the financier. So, let’s start by identifying the explorer, and respect the motivations of the financier as we make our future plans.
David L. Ransom
is a senior research engineer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.