An op-ed piece in the July 3rd edition of the LA Times on the future of the US space program.
An American Odyssey
By Mark R. Whittington
How did it come to past that America’s human space flight program has become stuck going around literally in circles in low Earth orbit? Thirty years ago humans stopped going to the Moon. Despite a subsequent generation of improvement in technology and experience, there is little serious thought of going back to the Moon, not to speak of going to Mars.
Most of the reason for our being in the low Earth orbit trap stems from the failure of both the space shuttle and the space station program to live up to the promises of those who created them. The space shuttle was supposed to lower the cost of space travel by orders of magnitude. Instead, because of limited development budget and government mismanagement, the space shuttle has actually made space flight more expensive than it was in the 1960s. The current grounding of the shuttle fleet illustrates this point. The space station was supposed to be a world-class space laboratory and orbiting port of call for lunar and interplanetary spacecraft. Instead, eighteen years and tens of billions of dollars since it was proposed, the current incarnation of the space station has become a money pit, as NASA officials struggle to find a way to make use of it.
With such a record, who can blame some people for being skeptical of any idea of lunar bases or expeditions to Mars? NASA would just mess those up too the reasoning goes. Indeed the conventional wisdom seems to be that NASA has to spend the next several years fixing the mess in low Earth orbit before it even thinks of going beyond. Pursuing such a course would be a prescription for stagnation at best, for the death of human space flight as more and more people are turned off from space adventures. Instead, NASA should divest itself of human space flight operations in LEO to the private sector as quickly as possible. In one stroke, breaking the Gordian knot as it were, NASA can transform itself from a bureaucratic, operations agency and return to the cutting edge research and development and exploration it has done best.
NASA can do several things to free itself from the Low Earth Orbit trap that it and human space flight has found itself in for a generation. First, it should commercialize the space shuttle fleet, lock, stock, and astronaut. The government has run a national space line for far too long, bringing along with it government inefficiencies. Next, NASA should throw open all regular launch services, including the resupply and crew rotation of the International Space Station, to private bid. Finally, NASA should redirect that Space Launch Initiative away from building a replacement for the shuttle and toward technology development that will help create a private launch industry.
NASA and the partners in the International Space Station should privatize the space station. A private operator would be empowered to enter into commercial agreements to maintain and enhance the space station capabilities. Whereas mismanagement by NASA has threatened to freeze the space station at a crew of three, a private firm might be able to find creative ways to expand that capacity back to seven crew members, or even more. NASA and her ISS partners could become customers of ISS, rather than operators. A privately run LEO infrastructure would go farther toward proving the usefulness of humans in space than would staying the course, hoping something will change by itself.
Thus freed of the financial burden of running the space station and the space shuttle, NASA can turn it’s and the world’s sights beyond going around in circles. A return to the Moon effort would not necessarily be an Apollo-sized effort. Studies conducted at the Johnson Space flight Center and at the Lunar and Planetary Institute suggests that from beginning to the first footsteps, a five-year, two and a half billion-dollar effort using off the shelf or soon to be developed technology could be mounted. Even at double the estimated cost, the price of a return to the Moon would be a billion dollars a year; half what it takes to maintain the space station.
A series of expeditions to the Moon, which could be started in a year or two when NASA’s financial house is in order, would accomplish several things. First those voyages would prospect for natural resources which would be useful for maintaining a lunar settlement, for running space based industries, and for creating space solar power stations and fueling fusion power plants that will be developed in the future. They would also test technologies necessary for building, expanding, and maintaining a lunar settlement in a cost-effective fashion. A lunar settlement, at one of the poles where ice has been detected, will serve as the focus for the scientific study and the commercial development of the Moon, as well as support for a far side observatory that would help unlock the secrets of the universe.
NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe is pursing the correct course by developing nuclear power and propulsion systems in advance of any attempt to send humans beyond the Moon, say to Mars. Those efforts should be increased to include all technologies that would help send humans to Mars and to Earth approaching asteroids on a large scale. Then, early in the next decade, a future President will be able to commit the nation and her allies to going to Mars, ironically, “not because it is hard, but because it is easy.”
Even as we write the American Iliad in the war against terrorism, in the hills of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq, it behooves us to begin the American Odyssey on the stone deserts of the Moon and the rusty plains and valleys of Mars. The future requires that we dare no less.
Mark R. Whittington is a writer and space policy analyst residing in Houston, Texas. He is the author of Children of Apollo, an alternate history novel about the US space program.