Turning Space Exploration Dreams Into Reality


The Apollo program continues to cast a long shadow, and John Logsdon’s essay “When Did We Stop Dreaming?” [April 16, page 35] captures perfectly the lingering disappointment and nostalgia of a generation that witnessed those achievements but thereafter had to be satisfied with the repetitive space shuttle missions to low Earth orbit, and is now left with a human space exploration program of disputed direction and uncertain future.

But it is time to put Apollo and the shuttle behind us and make the best of what we can afford in the future. The United States aspires to a space exploration program “worthy of a great nation,” but at the moment chooses only to fund a collection of exploration elements comprising the Space Launch System (a heavy-lift launch vehicle derived from the space shuttle main engines combined with the external tank and boosters), the Orion crew exploration vehicle, associated ground segment upgrades, and the effort to transfer low Earth orbit crew transportation capabilities to commercial providers.

Clearly some people don’t think this is sufficient. And yet this particular version of a human space exploration program succeeds where all previous attempts since Apollo have failed: After eight years, in which the occupant of the White House has changed once and the NASA administrator has changed twice, it still survives. Congress has supported the program with three authorization acts (2005, 2008 and 2010), the most recent one admittedly not in line with White House wishes, but these acts have provided guidance and continuity even when White House support was unfocused.

And here lies the key ingredient for the potential sustainability of this particular space exploration program: Both the White House and Congress finally accept that a program of human space exploration, with Mars as the eventual goal, is an activity the United States should not cancel. This is an important step to achieving a sustainable program of human space exploration. Given the inherent uncertainties in the U.S. electoral and budgetary processes, this is perhaps the best that can be hoped for.

A parallel can be drawn to the decision by President Richard Nixon in 1972 on the direction human spaceflight should take after the Apollo lunar landings. Nixon did not really understand why the United States should continue with human spaceflight, but he did not want to be the one to cancel it. So Nixon approved the space shuttle program and in so doing redirected human spaceflight activities from exploration capabilities to engineering capabilities. Turning low Earth orbit from a symbolic to a pragmatic frontier provided a foundation for construction and industrial activities, which in turn provides the foundation for commerce we are striving to establish today.

Today, the administration of President Barack Obama does not know what to do with human space exploration but does not want to be the one to cancel it. This is a weak position that must be changed if space exploration is to become a reality.

In March, when testifying before a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on the past, present and future of NASA (and indeed at other events since then), Neil deGrasse Tyson passionately appealed for NASA’s budget to be doubled to “a penny on a dollar” to “transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.” So is the glass of NASA’s budget half-full or half-empty? For Tyson it is clearly half-empty. But would a full glass for NASA produce a better space exploration program? And would such a space program be sustainable politically and financially?

Technologies being developed to explore space are already being used with tangible benefits to the economy, and this message needs to be communicated more aggressively. Appealing for more money, however passionately, is not as effective as ensuring that existing plans and policies for space exploration are accepted and implemented by White House officials. There is a depressing history of NASA being shortchanged year after year by individuals in key positions who, in the absence of administration leadership, prefer to say the resources to fund out-year budget requirements are not available, rather than finding the resources necessary to implement approved policies.

A review of comparable activities in other countries serves to underline the fact that the United States has a clear lead in human space exploration. In the eight years since President George W. Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, Europe has yet to formulate a cogent strategy for space exploration after or beyond the international space station. The European Space Agency (ESA) now possesses a reliable launch vehicle capable of transporting crews to low Earth orbit, and has developed in-space transportation and re-entry technology that could form enabling building blocks of an autonomous human spaceflight capability to low Earth orbit, but as yet is unable to make the next step. The situation in Europe has become more complicated of late, with the European Union demonstrating an increasing determination to formulate and implement a space policy for Europe reflecting European economic and societal priorities. Political involvement on this scale could bring about a larger budget for space activities, but it is not clear that space exploration would benefit.

Japan, with assets and capabilities similar to those in Europe, has plans for a cargo return spacecraft derived from its H-2A Transfer Vehicle, perhaps leading to an eventual crew space transportation capability to the space station by 2025, but as yet has made no decision to proceed with full development.

Russia has an extensive heritage of space capabilities and achievements, and in particular is the key partner for the United States in maintaining the international space station. Following a period of stagnation and reduction in assets (in particular the Energia launch vehicle and the Buran shuttle), Russia is showing renewed confidence in modernizing its space transportation systems and developing new capabilities. Recently the Russian space agency Roscosmos revealed details of a possible space strategy up to around 2030. Here again, human space exploration does not enjoy a high priority. It remains to be seen what the Russian government decides to fund.

China is pursuing a steady but slow-paced effort in developing human spaceflight capabilities (in some ways, a simpler version of the capabilities-enabled approach being pursued by NASA), and has announced plans to launch a small space station by 2020, with the goal in the long term to land humans on the Moon. But China is at an early point in developing the capabilities needed to achieve that goal, and major obstacles must still be overcome.

At one point India had hoped to have initial human spaceflight capabilities by 2015, but problems with its large launch vehicle have set back those ambitions by an undetermined number of years.

For the United States, leadership in space exploration is a central objective — the American space exploration program as currently formulated in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act charges NASA with expanding “permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit.” If there is a space agency capable of achieving that goal, it is surely NASA. But Congress has not yet seen fit to provide the funding necessary for NASA to do it alone, and Congress added a catch in the second half of the sentence: “… and to do so, where practical, in a manner involving international partners.” International cooperation is often mentioned in agency plans and policies, but as far as future human space exploration is concerned it has remained an object of lip service, with relatively little being undertaken to make it a reality.

A group of 14 space agencies has been holding discussions and organizing conferences on possible exploration scenarios for the past five years, but with no commitment to implement them. This lack of progress highlights the underlying lack of an international political consensus, and this is the key challenge facing the United States: achieving political leadership of a long-term international space exploration partnership. This would enable the United States to achieve not only its own national goals but those of its international partners too. This issue deserves more political attention because the anticipated level of funding for human space exploration is insufficient for NASA to develop, build and launch the Space Launch System and the Orion crew vehicle and also develop the additional exploration elements needed to visit locations or destinations beyond low Earth orbit.

And so we see that the combination of international interest in space exploration, combined with the prevailing financial problems around the globe, actually provide a catalyst for a country able to provide geopolitical leadership to step forward and coordinate the resources available. If NASA is to attract timely international contributions to enable deep-space exploration missions to be carried out when the core transportation elements become operational, agreements must be negotiated soon. A strong and enduring administration commitment is a key requirement to assuring the United States of international leadership of a human space exploration program worthy of a great nation. Conversely, the current weak administration position on space exploration is a serious risk to program sustainability.

If we are going to explore the universe there are a thousand ways of going about it, and it will be impossible to keep all the stakeholders happy all of the time. Inevitably, when we look back in 20 or 30 years we will see many mistakes in our early exploration efforts, regardless of what choices we make. I only hope that when we do look back, at least we can say, “We made a start.”


Chris Gilbert is a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute following interests in international cooperation issues of space exploration.