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Asteroid mission illustration
Future human exploraiton beyond Earth orbit, such as missions to asteroids, will require several different types of partnerships to be sucecssful. (credit: DigitalSpace)

Critical partnerships for the future of human space exploration

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One thing everyone can agree on with respect to the Obama Administration’s intention to cancel the Constellation program: it has triggered a vigorous debate about the future of NASA and the role that organization will play in humanity’s next steps into the solar system. Numerous articles posted in The Space Review have illuminated the scope of this debate, from its fundamental assumptions about the value of space exploration for the United States and its people, to the variety of ways in which a post-shuttle program of human exploration beyond LEO might be carried out.

In reading about and pondering these issues, it seems to me that there are three critical partnerships that will reshape NASA, and the larger vision of space exploration it represents, well into the 21st century. Exploring the current debate in the context of these three partnerships might help illuminate how future human expeditions beyond LEO will be carried out. A brief review the assumptions behind NASA’s Constellation program, and its technological godfather, Apollo, will help set the stage for this discussion.

The convergence of social, political, and technological forces that made Apollo possible no longer exists, and never will again.

The Apollo missions were unquestionably the greatest achievement of manned space flight, and among the greatest achievements in the history of human exploration. No one who was fortunate enough to be alive to witness mankind’s first visit to another world will ever forget it. John F. Kennedy’s passionate commitment to sail into “this new ocean” of space became the model of presidential vision and leadership.

Constellation has been described as “Apollo on steroids.” It replicates many of the systems developed over forty years ago for the first manned Moon landings, with the intention of returning astronauts to the Moon sometime in the next decade. On the face of it, this sounds encouraging for those of us who want to see astronauts resume the journeys beyond Earth orbit that ended so abruptly with Apollo 17. But as NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has noted, various presidents and congressional leaders have tried to “re-do” Apollo for the last forty years. Clearly they have not succeeded.

Understandably, the Apollo program is deeply ingrained in the public psyche, the glorious victory of a bygone era that many wish we could aspire to again. But today’s space advocates often forget that Apollo was a unique program designed to achieve a specific political goal in the 1960s: to demonstrate the social and technological superiority of the American political system over its chief rival, the Soviet Union. The convergence of social, political, and technological forces that made Apollo possible no longer exists, and never will again. Those who decry the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel the Constellation program seem to ignore this fundamental fact. Trying to replicate the Apollo program makes about as much sense as trying to rebuild the pyramids. The emerging Obama space policy offers a new approach that acknowledges the substantial changes that have taken place in the world in the decades since Apollo. Those changes are reflected in three critical partnerships:

I. Public/Private

Since its inception, NASA has depended on the resources of the private sector to develop the hardware that makes space travel possible. Building on military ICBM technology developed by General Dynamics, Lockheed, Boeing, and others, the Mercury and Gemini programs lofted American astronauts into Earth orbit. The Apollo Saturn V rocket was built, under NASA guidance, by a variety of military contractors for the purely civilian purpose of sending men to the Moon.

NASA has maintained a monopoly on dictating the design and performance characteristics of manned vehicles ever since. The Space Shuttle, ISS, and proposed Constellation vehicles are the post-Apollo examples. The Obama Administration proposes letting the private sector take the lead on developing a post-Shuttle system for getting astronauts to and from LEO, using NASA technology and expertise as needed. Instead of managing a new human vehicle program, NASA will act as a government buyer seeking a service from the private sector.

This may seem like a subtle difference, but it marks a profound change to the way NASA has managed its human spaceflight programs over the past fifty years. This aspect of Obama’s new space policy is generating the greatest resistance among entrenched government interests (particularly members of Congress who represent districts with a significant financial stake in Constellation). Thousands of NASA and NASA-contractor jobs will be lost if Constellation is de-funded to make way for private space vehicles.

There is also a legitimate concern that private, “NewSpace” endeavors, like SpaceX, are not sufficiently mature to be trusted with the task of ferrying American astronauts to LEO. Shifting this responsibility to the private sector certainly carries some risk, but the NASA record on ensuring the safety of astronauts is far from perfect, particularly in the shuttle program. The simple capsule design under consideration at SpaceX is inherently safer than the enormously complex shuttle.

If for no other reason than the enormous expense involved in human deep space missions, international cooperation on many levels will be necessary for expanding human presence into the solar system.

The primary motivation for turning to the private sector for launch services is cost. SpaceX and others claim they can provide “space taxi” services for far less cost than Orion/Ares 1. This is an article of faith among space entrepreneurs, not an established fact, but cost overruns and schedule delays on Constellation are clearly the chief motivation for turning to the private sector.

II. US International

The US frequently partners with other countries and international organizations on space missions, primarily in the field of robotic exploration. Partnering in the development of manned systems has been resisted because of a belief, held deeply by many in government and among the public, that the US needs to have independent human access to space to maintain its status as a world power. If the Russians and Chinese can send people into orbit, so the reasoning goes, the US must as well, or risk being perceived as a declining power on the world stage.

This argument has many adherents, and is not without merit. But a distinction must be made between a capability for launching people into orbit and sending them on missions far beyond Earth. If for no other reason than the enormous expense involved in human deep space missions, international cooperation on many levels will be necessary for expanding human presence into the solar system. The US will maintain its own fleet of vehicles for getting to LEO (built by the private sector, in the Obama plan) but journeys into deep space will be an international effort. In the Obama space policy, foreign nations will be given, for the first time, the opportunity to develop systems on the “critical path” for exploration beyond LEO. This is a potentially profound change in the course of human exploration, much of which has been driven by specific national goals and interests.

III. Human/Robot

Robots (and I use the term somewhat loosely here) have paved the way for human space exploration since the first artificial satellite launches in the late 1950s. The Ranger and Surveyor probes charted and landed on the Moon before humans set foot there, and of course a number of successful Mars orbiters and landers have explored the Red Planet since the 1960s.

What will be different going forward is the relationship between humans and machines in space exploration. Rather than acting simply as scouts, robots will work together with humans in the exploration of other worlds. Architectures that recognize and build upon the complementary skills that humans and robots bring to space exploration will maximize the scientific return and minimize the cost of such missions.

For example, utilizing robots alone to explore Mars is extremely limiting. Robots have no capacity to think independently, and must be programmed in painstaking detail to perform the simplest tasks. An experienced human geologist on Mars can quickly evaluate and move through her surroundings, focusing on the most scientifically rich features, and conduct in situ analysis, far more quickly than a robot.

A program that recognizes and embraces these partnerships has a far greater likelihood of success than the US trying to repeat the Apollo experience, if for no other reason than it will use our limited financial resources more efficiently.

If, however, it were possible for a human geologist on Earth to control a robot on Mars in real time, robots could become valuable extensions of human explorers. The time lag for signals to travel to and from Mars makes this kind of “telepresence” impossible. But, if a series of robotic vehicles were deployed on Mars and controlled by astronauts in Martian orbit, telepresence would be easy, and far less expensive (and dangerous) than landing humans on Mars. Orbiting geologists could control the vehicles on the ground in real time, and bring the most interesting samples to orbit for more detailed analysis. Astronauts could also directly explore the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, which are of great scientific interest in their own right (manned missions to the moons of Mars have been considered by NASA since at least the 1970’s). Expeditions to NEOs and Venus could also be accomplished in this fashion.

It is entirely possible that in the next ten or twenty years, interfaces between humans and machines will become so sophisticated that an astronaut in Mars orbit, controlling a robotic avatar on its surface, will experience the Martian environment as if he were standing on the planet himself. Virtual presence is the next best thing to being there.

The goal of landing humans on Mars is appealing on many levels, and by no means is the “Ph.D” mission described above intended as an alternative to that age-old dream. But it would be an invaluable precursor, and could be accomplished at significantly less expense. The duration of the mission could be as little as a year, and we know humans can survive in microgravity at least that long with no ill effects. The dangers posed by the radiation environment beyond the safety of our Van Allen belts is another issue (one that demands more attention than it’s received) but the most conservative estimates for a human Mars landing require missions lasting at least two years. In this context, a year-long “Ph.D” mission is even more attractive.


A program that recognizes and embraces these three partnerships has a far greater likelihood of success than the US trying to repeat the Apollo experience, if for no other reason than it will use our limited financial resources more efficiently. The private sector is on the cusp of providing human access to LEO, freeing NASA to devote its resources to developing the systems that will take us beyond it. Current federal spending levels are not sustainable, and in a few years, if not sooner, NASA will be forced to tighten its already constrictive belt.

If NASA is still building Ares 1 and Orion when the federal government begins to make the draconian cuts necessary to move toward a balanced budget, we will be stuck in LEO for a very long time. Shifting more of the cost to the private sector and international partners will help alleviate the burden on the US taxpayer. Enhancing the role of robotics will lower the cost of human missions beyond LEO even more by deferring the expense of human Mars landing and return vehicles until after Ph.D. missions have yielded their maximum scientific returns.

By taking a more incremental, step-by-step approach, as opposed to the largely inflexible Apollo-style architecture represented by Constellation, unforeseen technological breakthroughs can more easily be integrated into future systems. Human exploration of the solar system won’t begin in earnest until a radical reduction in the cost of getting humans and payloads into LEO is achieved. Such a breakthrough may not come for decades, if ever, or it could happen sooner than we dare believe. In the meantime, we can continue to test the waters of the great ocean of space with whatever resources and ingenuity we can muster, confident that someday we’ll be making waves.