Everything old is new again
by Andre Bormanis
|Unlike the 1960s, there is no compelling political rationale for sending astronauts to the Moon, no pitched competition with a global adversary trying to prove its superiority to the American way of life.|
Investigating the deaths of two unarmed black men and a black child with a toy gun at the hands of white policemen, grand juries found insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against any of the officers involved. Protest marches and several episodes of rioting broke out in cities across the country, echoing many of the actions and issues that defined the American civil rights movement fifty years ago.
An unpopular US President, accused by some of autocratic behavior, is nominating his fourth Secretary of Defense as our soldiers continue fighting an unpopular war in a part of the world most Americans couldn’t find on a map.
And at the end of the week, NASA launched Orion, a space capsule that, from a distance at least, is the spitting image of an Apollo capsule. Cue the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Check your local listings for Star Trek and Laugh-In.
These analogies to the 1960’s are strained, of course. Ferguson and Afghanistan are not Selma and Vietnam. And yet there is a peculiar resonance between the social and political landscape of half a century ago and the world we live in today. As Mark Twain noted, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.
Orion has been described as Apollo on steroids. Originally designed to carry six astronauts, the current configuration reduces that number to four, just one more than Apollo. There are other incremental improvements over the technology that originally carried men to the Moon, particularly in electronics and materials, but in large part Orion is your father’s Apollo.
Also like Apollo, Orion will eventually be carried into space on a giant multistage booster currently in development, ingeniously dubbed the Space Launch System (SLS). Its supporters claim it will eventually be able to loft as much payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) as the venerable Saturn V. Skeptics question whether this goal can be achieved over the next decade, and if so, at what cost.
Unlike the 1960s, there is no compelling political rationale for sending astronauts to the Moon, no pitched competition with a global adversary trying to prove its superiority to the American way of life. Many people question whether America can remain the world’s leader in science and technology, and our global economic dominance will inevitably be eclipsed by China—but few argue that a new race to the Moon or Mars is the answer to these problems, if in fact they’re “problems” at all.
Norman Augustine, the former Lockheed Martin CEO and leader of two presidential advisory panels on space, has expressed continuing concerns about NASA’s human spaceflight program. In a recent interview published in Aviation Week and Space Technology (December 1–8, 2014, p. 19) Augustine noted that while there has been substantial progress, the program as a whole “…suffers from the same thing it did in the generation prior to each of the studies that I worked on, namely that the goals and the budget didn’t match. And I’m afraid that we may be doing it again.”
The new Congress set to take office next month isn’t likely to increase NASA’s budget for exploration. Even if the SLS is funded through completion, a host of additional technologies would have to be developed and funded before astronauts set foot again on the Moon, let alone Mars.
Space advocates typically cite two key reasons for sending humans into the solar system: increasing our scientific understanding, and ensuring the long-term survival of the human race.
|A program based on fifty-year-old mission plans and romantic nostalgia has little if any chance of being realized. The strategies of the past will not help us achieve the goals of the future.|
Creating robust human colonies off the Earth is an undertaking that will require many generations of effort. It is not a near-term NASA program. Science is a crucial part of NASA’s mandate, however, and the space agency’s robotic exploration of Mercury, Venus, Mars, and beyond has expanded our knowledge of the solar system exponentially. This raises several interesting questions: what is the proper role of humans in space exploration and discovery, what technologies would best enable that role, and can these technologies be developed within the budget constraints NASA is likely to face?
Telepresence may hold the key. Astronauts orbiting Mars could operate rovers on its surface in virtually real time, exploring and collecting samples as if they were actually there. As others have argued in The Space Review, combining the best qualities that humans and machines have to offer in the unforgiving environment of space and the extremely challenging surface of Mars would be far more effective in answering fundamental scientific questions than humans or robots alone (see “The next best thing”, The Space Review, September 4, 2012).
The most important issue regarding Mars is whether life currently exists there, or did in the past. Rovers such as Curiosity have limited, albeit very impressive, capabilities when it comes to answering this question. Even as their capabilities increase, many scientists have argued that without human geologists working on the surface, the life question will be difficult or impossible to answer. Telepresence makes it possible for astronauts to work on the surface of Mars without leaving its orbit—and without contaminating Mars with the billions of bacteria that every human being harbors. I would argue that until we have the answer to the question of whether life still exists on or just below the surface, no human being should set foot on Mars. Sterilized machines on the ground teleoperated by people in orbit (and samples returned to labs on Earth) could finally answer this most compelling of questions.
As someone who was raised on the romance of the NASA program of the 1960s, I would certainly feel a certain frustration in watching astronauts traveling 99 percent of the way to Mars but not leaving their boot prints there. But if the goal is finding out whether life exists beyond Earth, and the prospects for funding an Apollo-level effort to land humans on Mars remain dim, alternatives must be considered. We know that sending humans to Mars orbit and back is technically feasible. A well considered, reasonably paced program to do so may be politically feasible as well.
I applaud the achievements of the team that sent Orion into space last Friday. It thrilled me to see a vehicle capable of taking humans beyond LEO for the first time in over forty years pass its first real test so spectacularly. And certainly it’s a promising step in the direction of getting astronauts to the vicinity of Mars and back home. But if the Orion capsule is ever going to be put to its intended use, the President, Congress, and NASA needs to seriously re-think the role of humans in space, taking into account the ever-advancing capabilities in robotics and telepresence that will be available in the 2030s, probably the earliest timeframe in which a human mission to Mars might be undertaken. A program based on fifty-year-old mission plans and romantic nostalgia has little if any chance of being realized. The strategies of the past will not help us achieve the goals of the future.