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A Vision, Not A Destination
When I was digging through my December 2003 archives to see what I was writing about the Wright brothers anniversary, I ran across this space policy essay that I wrote a few days later. As long as I'm doing reruns today, it still holds up pretty well, I think, so here's an encore, from almost four years ago.
A Vision, Not A Destination (First published on December 22nd, 2003)
Jason Bates has an article on the current state of space policy development. As usual, it shows a space policy establishment mired in old Cold-War myths, blinkered in its view of the possibilities.
NASA needs a vision that includes a specific destination. That much a panel of space advocates who gathered in Washington today to celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight could agree on. There is less consensus about what that destination should be.
Well, if I'd been on that panel, the agreement would have been less than unanimous. I agree that NASA needs a vision, but I think that the focus on destination is distracting us from developing one, if for no other reason than it's probably not going to be possible to get agreement on it.
As the article clearly shows, some, like Paul Spudis, think we should go back to the moon, and others, like Bub Zubrin, will settle for no less than Mars, and consider our sister orb a useless distraction from the true (in his mind) goal. We are never going to resolve this fundamental, irreconciliable difference, as long as the argument is about destinations.
In addition, we need to change the language in which we discuss such things. Dr. Spudis is quoted as saying:
"...For the first time in the agency's history there is no new human spaceflight mission in the pipeline. There is nothing beyond" the international space station."
Fred Singer of NOAA says:
The effort will prepare humans for more ambitious missions in the future, Singer said. "We need an overarching goal," he said. "We need something with unique science content, not a publicity stunt."
Gary Martin, NASA's space architect declares:
NASA's new strategy would use Mars, for example, as the first step to future missions rather than as a destination in itself, Martin said. Robotic explorers will be trailblazers that can lay the groundwork for deeper space exploration, he said.
"...human spaceflight mission..."
This is the language of yesteryear. This debate could have occurred, and in fact did occur, in the early 1970s, as Apollo wound down. There's nothing new here, and no reason to think that the output from it will result in affordable or sustainable space activities.
They say that we need a vision with a destination, but it's clear from this window into the process that, to them, the destination is the vision. It's not about why are we doing it (that's taken as a given--for "science" and "exploration"), nor is it about how we're doing it (e.g., giving NASA multi-gigabucks for a "mission" versus putting incentives into place for other agencies or private entities to do whatever "it" is)--it's all seemingly about the narrow topic of where we'll send NASA next with our billions of taxpayer dollars, as the scientists gather data while we sit at home and watch on teevee.
On the other hand, unlike the people quoted in the article, the science writer Timothy Ferris is starting to get it, as is Sir Martin Rees, the British Astronomer Royal, though both individuals are motivated foremost by space science.
At first glance, the Ferris op-ed seems just another plea for a return to the moon, but it goes beyond "missions" and science, and discusses the possibility of practical returns from such a venture. Moreover, this little paragraph indicates a little more "vision," than the one from the usual suspects above:
As such sugarplum visions of potential profits suggest, the long-term success of a lunar habitation will depend on the involvement of private enterprise, or what Harrison H. Schmitt, an Apollo astronaut, calls "a business-and-investor-based approach to a return to the Moon to stay." The important thing about involving entrepreneurs and oil-rig-grade roughnecks is that they can take personal and financial risks that are unacceptable, as a matter of national pride, when all the explorers are astronauts wearing national flags on their sleeves.
Sir Martin's comments are similar:
The American public's reaction to the shuttle's safety record - two disasters in 113 flights - suggests that it is unacceptable for tax-funded projects to expose civilians even to a 2% risk. The first explorers venturing towards Mars would confront, and would surely willingly accept, far higher risks than this. But they will never get the chance to go until costs come down to the level when the enterprise could be bankrolled by private consortia.
Yes, somehow we've got to break out of this national mentality that the loss of astronauts is always unacceptable, or we'll never make any progress in space. The handwringing and inappropriate mourning of the Columbia astronauts, almost eleven months ago, showed that the nation hasn't yet grown up when it comes to space. Had we taken such an attitude with aviation, or seafaring, we wouldn't have an aviation industry today, and in fact, we'd not even have settled the Americas. To venture is to risk, and the first step of a new vision for our nation is the acceptance of that fact. But I think that Mr. Ferris is right--it won't be possible as long as we continue to send national astronauts on a voyeuristic program of "exploration"--it will have to await the emergence of the private sector, and I don't see anything in the "vision" discussions that either recognizes this, or is developing policy to help enable and implement it.
There's really only one way to resolve this disparity of visions, and that's to come up with a vision that can encompass all of them, and more, because the people who are interested in uses of space beside and beyond "science," and "exploration," and "missions," are apparently still being forced to sit on the sidelines, at least to judge by the Space.com article.
Here's my vision.
I have a vision of hundreds of flights of privately-operated vehicles going to and from low earth orbit every year, reducing the costs of doing so to tens of dollars per pound. Much of their cargo is people who are visiting orbital resorts, or even cruise ships around the moon, but the important things is that it will be people paying to deliver cargo, or themselves, to space, for their own purposes, regardless of what NASA's "vision" is.
At that price, the Mars Society can raise the money (perhaps jointly with the National Geographic Society and the Planetary Society) to send their own expedition off to Mars. Dr. Spudis and others of like mind can raise the funds to establish lunar bases, or even hotels, and start to learn how to operate there and start tapping its resources. Still others may decide to go off and visit an asteroid, perhaps even take a contract from the government to divert its path, should it be a dangerous one for earthly inhabitants.
My vision for space is a vast array of people doing things there, for a variety of reasons far beyond science and "exploration." The barrier to this is the cost of access, and the barrier to bringing down the cost of access is not, despite pronouncements to the contrary by government officials, a lack of technology. It's a lack of activity. When we come up with a space policy that addresses that, I'll consider it visionary. Until then, it's just more of the same myopia that got us into the current mess, and sending a few astronauts off to the Moon, or Mars, for billions of dollars, isn't going to get us out of it any more than does three astronauts circling the earth in a multi-decabillion space station.
There's no lack of destinations. What we continue to lack is true vision.Posted by Rand Simberg at December 17, 2007 08:20 AM