The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, October 23, 2009

Shoot the Moon

The U.S. Manned Space Program Needs Fewer Big Dreams and More Practical Vision

In his science fiction novel From the Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne had his astronauts make the outgoing trip not via rockets but rather shot them out of a large cannon/gun from the Earth to the lunar surface. When the French director Georges Méliès created his classic 1902 black-and-white film version of the story, entitled Le Voyage dans la Lune, he provided a fanciful image of their capsule hitting and putting out the eye of the Man in the Moon like a bullet. Apparently, in those days, they took the phrase “shoot the moon” (i.e. setting lofty goals) quite literally.

The U.S. harkened back to those literal times the other week when NASA successfully crashed its LCROSS probe into the Cabeus crater at the lunar South Pole. The purpose of actually, physically shooting the moon in this instance is to create a debris plume that can be analyzed for signs of water. The results are in and while the moon does hold water, it appears to be at the lowest spectrum of predictions. For all the romantic songs and geekish fervor it has inspired over the centuries, as a practical, scientific concern, the moon remains largely underwhelming in its potential.

Much the same is the case for U.S. manned spaceflight. When NASA’s performance evaluation begins with the sentence, “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory,” it does not seem like it would be the year to demand a big raise. Yet, apparently, that is what everyone, including the reviewers, seem to think it needs.

The White House yesterday received the final copy of a report with the somewhat pompous title, Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation. It reviews the goals established for NASA by former President Bush back in 2005. Led by former aeronautic/aerospace CEO Norm Augustine, the panel concludes that, despite some good intentions, NASA has picked the wrong destination (the moon) with the wrong rocket (Ares).

In their evaluation of current technology, the Augustine Commission recommends extending the space shuttle missions an additional year into 2011 and extending the life of the International Space Station from 2015 to 2020. They praise the underlying design of the Constellation Program, which includes the Ares I low-Earth orbit rocket, the Ares V heavy-lift rocket, the Orion low-Earth orbit capsule, and the Altair lunar lander However, they also worry all of these will cost more than expected and take far longer to implement.

The Commission then outlined three basic human space exploration scenarios, each with various alternatives.

The first initially concentrates on the moon with lunar surface exploration focused on developing the capability to explore Mars. The Commission is largely negative toward this approach, saying it provides too little bang for the buck. Moon missions require a lot of fuel because of the moon’s relatively high gravity. What is more, astronauts must haul the fuel there from Earth because the moon contains few raw materials from which to create fuel.

The second scenario initially concentrates on Mars, perhaps after a brief test of equipment and procedures on the moon. The Commission is more bullish on Mars but with an important caveat.

“Mars is unquestionably the most scientifically interesting destination in the inner solar system, with a planetary history much like Earth’s. It possesses resources that can be used for life support and propellants. If humans are ever to live for long periods on another planetary surface, it is likely to be on Mars. But Mars is not an easy place to visit with existing technology and without a substantial investment of resources. The Committee finds that Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration of the inner solar system but it is not the best first destination.”

Although the report presents options rather than making recommendations, it seems clear the Commission favors some variant on the third scenario, which initially concentrates on what the panel terms “a flexible path” to inner solar system locations, such as lunar orbit, Lagrange points, asteroids, and the moons of Mars, followed by exploration of the lunar surface and/or Martian surface. Because of lower gravity, the Commission contends NASA could reach such targets more cheaply and quickly than the moon.

Moving away from a return to the moon is likely to meet with consternation within Congress, according to Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, Chair of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. She thinks full funding for NASA is the preferable answer.

Another possible point of controversy from the Augustine Commission report is its contention that NASA cannot afford to continue being the sole agency providing low-Earth orbit launches. To that end, it considers deemphasizing the Ares I rocket and placing greater reliance/incentives with private launch enterprises.

This has raised the ire of Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, whose home state is where the Ares I will be built and launched. On Wednesday, the Huntsville Times reported Shelby’s admonition on the Senate floor. “Without an honest and thorough examination of the safety and reliability aspects of the various designs and options for manned space flight, the findings of this report are worthless . . . these omissions are startling.” He too sees more funding as the answer to any problems.

The Augustine Commission does not entirely disappoint in this regard. Even with its cost-cutting measures and more modest goals, the report concludes NASA needs an extra $3 billion a year, starting in 2014, if U.S. astronauts are ever going to travel beyond Earth’s orbit.

As a fan of manned space exploration, I hope NASA ultimately gets the money. However, I also hope for the adoption of the new report’s basic pragmatism, including its less pretentious path into the inner solar system and beyond. It is easy to counter with warnings against loss of momentum by changing our direction but, then again, such losses characterize the whole history of U.S. manned spaceflight.

In dealing with the public during his Commission’s investigations, Augustine reports proponents of human space exploration struck him as believing in their topic “like a religion.” That seems an accurate description to me. Every so often, a prophet like JFK comes out of the wilderness to inspire us to some godlike task, realized with exhaustive human effort and massive amounts of money. Then, once achieving the impossible, we find ourselves without any clear idea what to do next and tremendous backsliding occurs.

When the Apollo missions ended, there was a multi-year wait for the space shuttle to return humans to space. When the shuttle is finally retired, the Augustine Commission predicts a minimum seven year gap before a new human launch vehicle is ready.

If manned spaceflight adherents want a consistent policy and budget, we need to pursue our ambitions less like ardent science fiction camp followers and more like serious scientists and businesspeople. This means meticulous long-range planning within the constraints of available financing. When NASA announces another milestone, instead of asking in wonder “How did they do that?” we need to have reached a point where we are slightly bored from having heard them talk about it for so long.

Without this discipline, we are a bit like Méliès’s Man in the Moon – when we shoot the moon, we keep shooting ourselves in the eye instead. To be truly sustainable and funded for the long haul, the U.S. manned space program needs fewer big dreams and more practical vision.

JFK’s inspiring and courageous words from 1962, announcing the U.S. intention to put a man on the moon in under a decade – “We choose to [do these things], not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – have remained a moving catalyst behind our dreams for exploring the stars well beyond their original, more limited intent. However, despite the opening lines of the Star Trek television/movie franchise, soaring rhetoric seldom makes for a good mission statement.

NASA and the American public needs to grow up regarding manned spaceflight. This is at the heart of the Augustine Commission report. It is high time.

1 comment:

Mike Licht said...

But why is NASA really seeking water on the Moon?