Ushering in a New Era of Human Space Exploration


U.S. President Barack Obama, in his April 15 speech at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said, “Nobody is more committed to manned spaceflight, to human exploration of space than I am.” How should the nation respond to this ringing endorsement? We can take this opportunity to move forward and embrace a dynamic human space exploration program, if we have both the vision — and the discipline — to do so.

Exploration and discovery inherently entail reaching places that we have not yet explored, pushing the boundaries of our knowledge and experience. Exploration missions demand that we step outside our experience base and strive to do something that has never been done. This inevitably leads to technological innovation, to scientific discovery, and to public inspiration. Human space exploration means going beyond low Earth orbit, where we’ve confined ourselves for the last 38 years.

Exploration and discovery are exciting and stimulating, to the public as well as to the scientists and engineers who are involved. There are meaningful discoveries still to be made as we explore new destinations: asteroids, the Earth-Moon Lagrangian points, the moons of Mars, and Mars itself. Human missions to these destinations will spark an interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and math that can help the United States counter the overwhelming numerical disadvantage in college graduates in these disciplines compared with those in developing nations.

I believe that an incremental approach to space exploration is feasible, affordable and sustainable. At each increment, we can go farther into space and stay longer, using each step to accomplish science objectives and lay the technological foundation for the next step. By constantly reaching for new destinations and performing each mission in as economical a manner as possible, rather than overemphasizing any single objective or destination, we can keep the expenditures within the projected NASA exploration budget, meet our exploration objectives and sustain the public’s interest and support. International participation in these missions can provide opportunities for cooperative cost-sharing and materially increasing the future sustainability of human space exploration.

Congress, in its NASA Authorization Act of 2010, recently approved the two key elements needed for the human exploration of space: the multipurpose crew vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS). While the details of the SLS program remain to be determined by NASA, the Orion spacecraft has been designed from the start to meet the requirements of the MPCV that will serve as the primary crew vehicle for missions beyond low Earth orbit. In this act, Congress authorized funding that will allow the first test flight of the Orion spacecraft in 2013, paving the way for exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit as early as 2016, and enabling a human mission to explore a near-Earth asteroid within this decade. This can and should be part of a long-term stepping-stone strategy that results in humans exploring Mars.

The Orion spacecraft is a state-of-the-art deep space vehicle that incorporates the technological and manufacturing advances in human spacecraft systems that have accrued over the last 35 years since the space shuttle was designed. In addition, the Orion program has recently been streamlined for additional affordability, setting new standards for efficient management. Orion is compatible with existing launch vehicles as well as all the potential SLS launch vehicles that are under consideration by NASA.

Lockheed Martin has defined a set of beyond-LEO human exploration missions, dubbed Stepping Stones, starting with lunar fly-by flights in 2016 and progressively reaching farther into space. Once the deep space capabilities of the MPCV spacecraft have been verified in the lunar fly-by mission, a longer mission to halo orbit the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point 2 could follow. This presents a good opportunity for teleoperation of robotic probes to recover samples from the far side of the Moon, perhaps with international participation. Discussions with international aerospace firms have indicated a desire for this to be conducted as a cooperative international mission, with multiple nations contributing to a simple Skylab-like facility over the lunar far side. The halo orbit allows for a low-risk evaluation of the extended duration human support capabilities of the MPCV required for the next mission, our Plymouth Rock mission, to a nearby asteroid.

This mission would use an Orion spacecraft, a second Orion-derived spacecraft with larger living space, and a 130-ton SLS launch vehicle to conduct a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid. One such mission, to the asteroid 2008 EA9, would launch in November 2019 and spend 92 days on its outbound trajectory, five days at the asteroid and 98 days on its return trajectory, returning to Earth in May 2020. This mission would take the crew 12 million kilometers from Earth or about 32 times the distance to the Moon, marking the first time that humans have gone beyond the gravity well of the Earth to venture into truly interplanetary space.

Human exploration of asteroids may be extremely important if continued detection of near-Earth objects indicates that one of these is on a collision course with Earth. Deflecting a hazardous asteroid is a mission that could require complex procedures that can be developed and exercised on a near-term mission. For example, a thorough understanding of the structure and composition of small asteroids will be necessary to determine how best to deflect them.

The six-month asteroid mission and the teleoperation robotic capability verified on the far-side halo mission provide the technological base needed for a mission to Deimos, one of the moons of Mars. This would extend human exploration to a distance of 320 million kilometers and the mission duration to almost three years. Initially going to one of the moons of Mars rather than to the martian surface offers several significant advantages: a means of addressing planetary protection concerns, reduced complexity relative to landing and living on Mars, and much lower launch mass requirements.

If the mission uses a teleoperated robotic probe to collect samples of water-laden materials from the surface of Mars, then the human explorers can examine these samples in a glove box in a mission habitat module on Deimos and decide whether they are safe to return to Earth. This approach takes advantage of the unique capabilities of both robots and humans: robots to safely go where humans cannot, and humans to do the complex task of evaluating samples. Resolving the question of whether life forms exist on Mars and whether they are compatible with Earth life forms is essential before humans arrive at the surface of Mars.

Human exploration missions will require a sustained national commitment of manpower, technical expertise, industrial capital, political support and expenditures that only the United States can afford. This is what has made us the leader in space. Great nations become so by doing great things. Embarking upon a new era of human space exploration will reinvigorate U.S. leadership in space. An incremental, stepping-stone approach to human exploration of space is affordable and sustainable.

With the demonstrated bipartisan support in Congress and continuing commitment by the Obama administration to human spaceflight, we can begin immediately, opening our horizons to near-Earth objects and destinations in this decade, and then beyond, to martian vistas.


John C. Karas is vice president and general manager for human spaceflight at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, the prime contractor for Orion.