One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite

Forget Bush’s “Vision For Space Exploration”, is it about time for some common sense?

When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)
When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)

Just in case you were wondering about what NASA is supposed to be doing, you’re not alone. On Monday, Buzz Aldrin, Feng Hsu and Ken Cox submitted a scathing draft letter proposing a radical change to ex-President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, stating that “post-Apollo NASA” has become a “visionless jobs-providing enterprise that achieves little or nothing,” in the field of re-usable, affordable or safe space transportation. The authors also call into question that logic of returning to the lunar surface. Tough words, but are they right?

As it turns out, only yesterday (Wednesday) the word from the White House was that the US will still be returning to the Moon in 2020, regardless of the short-falls of Bush’s 2004 Vision

It’s fairly easy to start throwing abuse at the US space agency these days. Although NASA has been at the brunt of much critique over the years, the volume of the protests seem to be getting louder.

On the one hand, this isn’t surprising; we are fast approaching the retirement of the space shuttle (next year), and there will be a shortage of human-rated US launch systems to maintain the nation’s presence in space until the first Constellation Program launch in 2015. Five years of depending on Russia to get astronauts into space is a problem on so many levels, forcing NASA to think quick (over a few years) to find a solution. NASA has also been suffering attacks from ex-administrators, highlighting mismanagement and the squandering of funds. To an extent, the politics can defend mismanagement, citing space exploration as an expensive venture where new technology is being developed (is there little wonder that project managers slip up?). However, when economic times are tough, and every $2 million has to be accounted for by government departments, waste becomes a very big issue.

To make matters worse, on Tuesday, a carbon emissions monitoring satellite failed after launch, dropping into the ocean off the coast of Antarctica. Although launch failures come with the territory of space exploration, the Orbital Carbon Observatory (OCO) loss is a damaging sting for NASA. The OCO cost over a quarter of a billion dollars ($270 million) to develop.

What’s at the root cause of these troubles? NASA was never intended as a long-term space agency. That’s according to the authors of the “Unified Space Vision” (as opposed to the 2004 “Vision of Space Exploration”) in any case. I can understand the intent of this paper, but unfortunately, I think it oversteps the mark.

I will take the time to study the detail of Buzz et al.’s suggestions for the Unified Space Vision, as I’m sure the trio will share a valuable insight to how NASA should progress, but I’m already frustrated by some of the arguments picked out by the New Scientist coverage of the letter (a cut-down version of the draft letter will be sent to President Obama for his consideration).

The gist of the argument is that NASA lacks direction, and since we’ve already been to the Moon, why do we want to go back? Since the Apollo Program was cancelled in the early 1970’s, NASA’s mission was pretty much complete. It’s one and only aim, to get man to the Moon (thereby winning the Space Race), had been achieved. What then? What do you do with a space agency when it’s completed its mission? Rather than closing down the agency, it trundled on and gradually found its own direction, researching and developing space science technologies, pushing robots (not man) into space.

In part, I believe the importance of a lunar return mission may have been over-hyped, but the Moon remains a very important stepping stone for the future of manned space exploration. I would argue that although NASA won the Space Race, the US government failed to realise the importance of a manned lunar presence. If space funding continued at Apollo-era levels, a lunar colony wouldn’t be a pipe dream in the 21st Century; we’d still be there. These are very easy things to say in hindsight, at the end of the day, with Soviet power crumbling in the 1970’s, the threat of strategic struggle for the stars was something reserved for 007 movies, not real life. NASA had fulfilled its task, planting the US flag on the Moon, cut-backs were inevitable. The Moon was no longer of political importance.

That said, it would appear President Obama has seen the advantage of getting US astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. It was announced via Aviation Weekly that:

The fiscal 2010 NASA budget outline to be released by the Obama Administration Feb. 26 adds almost $700 million to the out-year figure proposed in the fiscal 2009 budget request submitted by former President Bush, and sticks with the goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020.

The $18.7 billion that Obama will request for NASA – up from $18.026 billion for fiscal 2010 in the last Bush budget request – does not include the $1 billion NASA will receive in the $787 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama signed Feb. 16.

Aviation Week has learned that in addition to the human-lunar return, Obama wants to continue robotic exploration with probes to Mars and other Solar System destinations, as well as a space telescope to probe deeper into the universe. — Frank Morring, Jr., Aviation Week

We’ll see if Aldrin’s Unified Space Vision makes a difference, but it would appear President Obama remains very motivated to see an American back on the Moon in a decade.

Read the full Unified Space Vision »

Source: New Scientist

14 thoughts on “One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite”

  1. Dr. Hsu asked the Moon Society for their endorsement, and based on the objections by many, including my own, I am informed they declined. I had submitted my own reaction to the report HERE:

    In short, as much as we all respect Colonel Aldrin, I will take Dr. Schmitt’s wisdom on importance of the Moon to our future success in Space Exploration, almost any day of the week. The work had some value, which made the criticism of it more difficult.

  2. There are several more Earthly reasons to go back to the Moon and gather more detailed data. We need more precise orbits for our satellites and then the gravity of the Moon actually needs to be better know. We want GNSS on the Moon and I’m sure we can come up with plenty other arguments as well that not necessarily are motivated by space exploration but rather management of our own planet.

  3. Actually there are several factual errors here. First, I am on the Board of Directors of a new organization made up of 24 space advocacy and business groups. This organization has as one of its reference documents the full transcript of this paper and the focus of it was not about attacking NASA, (Feng Hsu actually refers to this group ” The Space Renaissance Initiative)and not about going to mars or the Moon as the main focus. The main focus was a unified Strategic vision, one where NASA still exists and is doing even more exploration but a vision where Space Development is the focus. So far in all the reports I haven’t read anyone picking this aspect up yet.

    The Aldrin- Hsu- Cox paper talks about creating a space development authority to foster concepts that will benefit the entire space sector such as developing cheap space access and collaborating with international partners both government and private sector. This is a win win for NASA and the private space sector, it will lead to less money being spent by the government on space missions, higher volume, and economic development of the solar system starting in LEO. Most of the crticism I have read is kneejerk reaction by people who have only skimmed over this document or who do not know the authors.

    And by the way, the Moon Society is part of this group as well and as far as I know initially had problems with it, but once we sat down and worked over the main points and the true focus of this document did agree with it (with some modifications) at this point there are some minor revisions being made as well so that’s not even the complete version. It’s not about going to the Moon, Mars or anywhere else as much as it is about providing the enabling systems and framework to develop a space economy where government missions can be much cheaper and the private sector can get much more involved. My own group- MarsDrive is part of this effort and we endorse this paper, because we have bothered to read it and understand it.

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