…that we can build human outposts on the moon. Some useful thoughts from Richard Mains.
As he notes, we’re putting the cart before the horse when we insist on an architecture, right now, that can get us back to the moon, or anywhere beyond LEO. We cannot even get into LEO cost effectively (that’s what all the space policy fuss has really been about for the past five years), and until we solve that problem, it is crazy talk to think about lunar bases. Again this mentality is driven by the flawed myths of Apollo, in which we sprinted to the moon, bypassing LEO because we didn’t have time, and then abandoned it because it couldn’t be politically or affordably sustained. (By the way, another bit of historical ignorance on Krauthammer’s part was his worship of JFK as the visionary who led us there, when in fact he had doubts about it early on, was never a big fan of space, and it’s likely that it would have died if he hadn’t). As Richard says, we need to establish a solid foothold in LEO before we can think about the best way to go beyond it, and that means developing truly routine and affordable access to it. That’s the fundamental basis of the Space Access Society, because Henry Vanderbilt and others realized long ago that until we can afford to get into orbit, it’s pointless to dream about points beyond.
Right after the Columbia was lost, I wrote a piece along this theme:
I’ve written before about the fragility and brittleness of our space transportation infrastructure. I was referring to the systems that get us into space, and the ground systems that support them.
But we have an even bigger problem, that was highlighted by the loss of the Columbia on Saturday. Our orbital infrastructure isn’t just fragile–it’s essentially nonexistent, with the exception of a single space station at a high inclination, which was utterly unreachable by the Columbia on that mission.
Imagine the options that Mission Control and the crew would have had if they’d known they had a problem, and there was an emergency rescue hut (or even a Motel 6 for space tourists) in their orbit, with supplies to buy time until a rescue mission could be deployed. Or if we had a responsive launch system that could have gotten cargo up to them quickly.
As it was, even if they’d known that the ship couldn’t safely enter, there was nothing they could do. And in fact, the knowledge that there were no solutions may have subtly influenced their assessment that there wasn’t a problem.
The lesson we must take from the most recent shuttle disaster is that we can no longer rely on a single vehicle for our access to the new frontier, and that we must start to build the needed orbital infrastructure in low earth orbit, and farther out, to the moon, so that, in the words of the late Congressman George Brown, “greater metropolitan earth” is no longer a wilderness in which a technical failure means death or destruction.
NASA’s problem hasn’t been too much vision, even for near-earth activities, but much too little. But it’s a job not just for NASA–to create that infrastructure, we will have to set new policies in place that harness private enterprise, just as we did with the railroads in the 19th Century. That is the policy challenge that will come out of the latest setback–to begin to tame the harsh wilderness only two hundred miles above our heads.
Constellation did nothing toward that end. It in fact completely ignored the requirement, repeating Apollo with another unsustainable sprint across the wilds. The new policy holds some promise, finally, of addressing it.