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Orion illustration
Can efforts like the Vision for Space Exploration survive a relative apathy about human spaceflight among the general public? (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Space exploration at a crossroad

Part 1: lessons to be learned

As we attempt to look 25 years into the future, we catch visions of breathtaking journeys in large man-made planets around the Sun to Mars and Venus, of a new freedom of movement of man across millions of miles of space, of a permanent colony on the Moon and of large space stations or space forts at key locations for the conduct of space research, for aid to space navigation, and for rescue operations.

- Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, March 16, 1962

For many reasons, we are living at a peculiar time in the exploration of space. After fifty years, it’s time to think again about what we have accomplished and where we are going. We are also at the mid-point in operation of the International Space Station and at the end of the Space Shuttle era.

We will also soon see a new president at the helm of the United States. This president will be confronted to some of the biggest challenges ever encountered by any of its predecessors: how to end the war in Iraq, how to balance the US budget against the needs of America, how to take care of the climate change crisis and energy needs, and how to meet aging Baby Boomer needs given the prodigious US national debt. Of course, in this context, the space program will not be a great issue for him.

But, considering the importance of space in terms of economics, education, technology R&D and applications, as well as in geopolitics, it is wise to think about what will happen in the next decade.

Time for reflection

November 2008 will mark the tenth anniversary of the International Space Station, with the launch of its first component on November 20, 1998. ISS has been inhabited since November 2000 by successive crews who spent up to six months onboard. They have accumulated some two billion kilometers of travel, something like a half-dozen Earth-Mars roundtrips.

Laypeople have no idea of what we’re doing in space. Many even think that billions spent “in space” should be put in better use here on Earth.

ISS is a colossal success considering that it’s an assembly of complex components built separately in the US, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. The fact that this assortment has functioned nearly perfectly for a decade is, by itself, a great achievement. But ISS is also an achievement in that it requires a level of day-to-day collaboration between America and Russia unthinkable twenty years ago. And who would have though that, following the Columbia loss, Russians would be so kind in keeping the station inhabited during the stand down of the Space Shuttle? The station’s tenth anniversary could also mark the mid-point of the program, since the station will probably be near its end in about ten years.

In July 2009, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first man on the Moon. It will be time to remember nearly fifty years of piloted spaceflight and re-evaluate the role of humans in space: are they worth the expense? This question, asked since the early days of the Space Age, will be an important one considering the future of the piloted space program after ISS and the Shuttle.

But perhaps more important will be the arrival in office of a new administration in time to rethink the future of space exploration. We will then be at the end of the Space Shuttle program, with about only a year of flying this marvelous but cocky machine. At some point early in his first term, the president will have to decide the future of the space program: what to do with ISS and President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration? Are we really going back to the Moon? If so, at what pace and for what purpose exactly: to stay and live in a Moonbase (like we’re doing onboard ISS) or to continue up to Mars? Or, if not, what else?

What we’re not telling the public

Laypeople have no idea of what we’re doing in space. Many even think that billions spent “in space” should be put in better use here on Earth. How many have an idea of the number of spacecraft launched since Sputnik? And what purpose are they serving?

As one of my friends told me recently: “What’s happening in space always goes wrong: it’s astronauts in trouble, launch delays, major failures, cost-overruns…” What my friend is saying is that each time he heard about space, it’s because there’s a problem. Like the rest of the public, he is rarely told about achievements, for instance, in Mars and Saturn exploration or about Hubble’s observations or about the assembly of the International Space Station. The only time the mass media reports about space these days, it seems, is when something goes wrong.

Of course, what interests most of us is space exploration, mainly piloted flights and planetary exploration. But who is aware that one of those two is booming with plenty of activities while the other is arriving at a crossroad?

Never before in the history of humankind are we making so many discoveries about our neighboring universe. Never in the fifty years of space exploration have we seen so many probes exploring so many interesting places in our solar system.

Right now, a half-dozen robots are working on the surface of and in orbit around Mars, discovering what looks like traces of water. They even make us think about possibilities of some microbial or other early life forms on the Red Planet! Thanks to Cassini, we are discovering lakes on Titan, the only place outside Earth where liquid exists on the surface of a world. And what about the spectacular pictures this probe sends us of Saturn’s rings and of its strange orbiting worlds? We’re even contemplating the possibility of life in such exotic worlds as Europa and Titan. There have also been a number of lunar missions launched, or about to be launched, by Europe, Japan, China, the US, and India.

There are also many probes en route to interesting places. While Venus Express is studying our sister planet, MESSENGER will place itself into orbit around Mercury in 2011. From 2011 to 2015, Dawn will extensively explore the main belt asteroids Vesta and Ceres. For its part, Rosetta will orbit comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014 and place a lander on it. Finally, New Horizons will arrive at Pluto in 2015. In fact, 10% of all probes ever launched are right now busily exploring our solar system! But the public is rarely told about that.

On the other hand, piloted spaceflight may be approaching a long hiatus. After nearly thirty years of services, the Space Shuttle is completing assembly of the International Space Station while crews work inside it. But living and working inside an orbiting lab is not very exciting even to space fans.

So, what will happen beyond 2010, after the Space Shuttle is retired? As we have seen during the Shuttle’s two-and-a-half-year grounding following the loss of Columbia, we will probably see ISS manned by crews replaced every six months by Soyuz spacecraft. Not very exciting.

Oh yes, American astronauts are scheduled to come back to ISS around 2015 aboard their brand-new Orion spacecraft, an enlarged Apollo-type capsule. But what if, in the meantime, some major trouble occurred on board the station? What if a critical system fails, or the shell of a module is punctured, or one of its solar arrays is severely damaged, or a vital piece of equipment breaks down?

What interests most of us is space exploration, mainly piloted flights and planetary exploration. But who is aware that one of those two is booming with plenty of activities while the other is arriving at a crossroad?

The Soyuz is a great transport ship for crew and some cargo, but it is no match to the capabilities of the Space Shuttle. What will happen if we need to carry large or heavy equipment to refurbish or repair the station beyond 2010? In a way, the recent deterioration of the rotating joint of one of the main solar arrays of ISS is an illustration of the kind of trouble ahead for the aging orbital complex. This problem, we are told, will require many EVAs done by Shuttle astronauts in upcoming missions. But, without the Shuttle, how would such a problem be tackled in the future?

Another scenario is the possibility that the Orion spacecraft will not be ready before the end of ISS. We could thus relive the 1970s, when Skylab was awaiting visits by early Shuttle crew. Delays in the Shuttle program and intense solar activity made Skylab fall from the sky before it could be reboosted. In 2018, the first elements of ISS will be 20 years old and, if everything went well, dozen of crews would have lived aboard for 6,500 days. The station would probably be at the end of its useful life. Thus, if Orion is delayed a couple of years, as was the Shuttle, no other American ship could ever come back to ISS after the last Shuttle flight of 2010.

Does the American public have any idea of what could happen in the next decade?

Spaceflight at a crossroad

Why do we explore? For what purpose, exactly, and at what cost?

The next president, as busy as he will be in managing national and world affairs, will probably have to tackle these questions. Of course, he could simply give NASA its yearly allowance without further question. But with so much red ink left to him by the current administration and so many needs to meet, he will have to make some choices at some point. Will he decide to cut space spending and stop or delay the Constellation program? Or, in a surprising move, will he commit the program to go to Mars? Or would he simply delay astronauts’ arrival on the Moon by not funding NASA enough?

Of course, we could argue that piloted spaceflight is essential, that it is economically vital to hundreds of thousands jobs all over the country. It’s also important for young people, since astronauts, scientists, and engineers are role models for them and make science appealing. We know these arguments.

But is it really true? That is, if the public doesn’t care any longer about space exploration, how it is an important stimulus to young people? As for the hundreds of thousands of jobs, maybe we could use those talents to solve environmental problems and energy crisis?

If we expect to continue space exploration, we need to make it appealing not only to scientists, engineers, and space enthusiasts, but also to the public in general. In his January 2004 announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration, President Bush tried to inspire the nation by sending astronauts to the Moon by 2020 and, later, to Mars. But, since then, a lot of people are asking why must we come back to a place we’d already been six times, and why go to Mars at all? Isn’t it too expensive? Don’t we need this money here on Earth?

One of the problems with VSE is its long schedule: the president announced something that could happen in 15 years or more—if everything goes well. Another problem is that people do not understand why it’s so important to explore the Moon again, as if we already didn’t know nearly everything we need to know about our neighbor.

Maybe the fundamental problem with the VSE is that the public doesn’t care about the Moon! Back in the 1960s, when President Kennedy announced a lunar landing before the end of the decade, he was appealing to a dream humanity had for centuries. Looking at night, a lot of people were then dreaming of what it would be like to stand on the Moon. In addition, Kennedy challenged the nation to do it in less than nine years.

Today, we are not dreaming of being on the Moon again and the same could be said about Mars: with so many spectacular shots taken from its surface by robots, don’t we already have the impression of having been there?

Maybe the fundamental problem with the VSE is that the public doesn’t care about the Moon!

This impression could be amplified by the wonderful art NASA provides. Soon after President Bush announced the Vision, NASA published illustrations and video clips showing the real thing. In a way, Bush’s vision has already been seen! The same applied for Mars: looking at NASA’s wonderful clips showing landing of robots gives us the impression that they are films taken on the spot. How many people think we had already been on Mars? Or, how many are really dreaming of seeing humans strolling on the red surface?

So, how do we convince the public that it is so important and exciting to go back to the Moon and then on to Mars? How do we inspire them that it’s a fabulous adventure they’ll need to follow during decades? How do we challenge them that it’s worth the tens of billions of dollars while there are so many urgent needs here on Earth?

That’s a challenge—a big challenge—that no one has met yet.

Learning from previous endeavors

Instead of going forward to the next big challenge of space exploration, maybe it’s time to take a break and think about the past three decades. After thirty years of Space Shuttle missions and ten years of International Space Station operations, what have we learned?

In this essay, we’re not talking about scientific, technological, or political lessons, but instead about the big picture. Each of the five lessons proposed here could be the subject of an essay of its own, but they are discussed briefly just to give some ideas to think about.

Lesson 1: Public interest is not sustainable for decades

Apollo was a true race, not so much against the Soviets than against time. NASA put two men on the Moon after only eight years of rapid, spectacular (and sometime tragic) steps. But times have changed and big programs like the Shuttle, the Space Station, and the Vision for Space Exploration span decades. That’s way too long for the public, politicians, and mass media to stay excited about. Last July, speaking about developing renewable energy sources, Al Gore confirmed this fact when he said: “Ten years is about the maximum time that we, as a nation, can hold a steady aim and hit our target.” So, the first lesson we could learn from the last thirty years of spaceflight is that public interest is not sustainable for decades.

Lesson 2: It’s dangerous to oversell a program

When President Nixon announced the Space Shuttle program in 1972, NASA envisioned a very affordable ($25 million a flight) and routine (50 missions a year) airline-type access to space. Even in 1982, some 500 flights were scheduled for the first twelve years of Shuttle operations. Well, after thirty years of flight, we’ll had achieved less than 135 missions for a program that cost at least $150 billion (that’s more than a billion dollars per flight). Thus, one the main lessons to be learned from the Space Shuttle is that it’s dangerous to oversell a program.

Lesson 3: Priorities change over decades

When President Reagan announced the space station program in 1984, the world was very different from what it is today. At that time, a newly commercial space sector was developing and dozens of corporations were investing to use a zero-G facility for marketable goods and services. But when the station finally became available, this private space sector had been dead for some 15 years! At its origins, the station was suppose to be a huge science lab for research in new medicines, materials, and industries, but President Bush restricted it to the study of long-term effects of space travel on human biology. No wonder that, 25 years after its announcement, the ISS doesn’t seem very useful given its $100-billion price tag.

Lesson 4: What do we really care about?

In 1961, President Kennedy had to choose between building a space station and a space shuttle before going to the Moon, or to go directly to the Moon. He chose to shoot for humanity’s dream. We couldn’t say the same about the Shuttle, ISS, or VSE since the general public had to be educated about why these projects are important. The one exception could be piloted expeditions to Mars. But, perhaps for some of the above reasons, this dream had already faded out. Thus, it is important to think about what the public really cares about.

Lesson 5: Big programs are very vulnerable

A fifth lesson is that big-ticket programs are very vulnerable to cuts, delays, and overruns, as we have seen with the Space Shuttle and ISS. To circumvent this vulnerability, President Bush proposed that most of the funding for VSE come from reallocations within the NASA budget, supplemented by modest overall funding increases for the agency. Also, the program will progress as technology and costs make it possible—that’s the pay-as-you-go strategy put forth by the President. But the VSE is already in trouble because NASA hasn’t received the modest increases expected. Furthermore, paying as you go could stretch out the program, which exacerbates lessons 1 and 3.

So, what could we do to continue to explore space, considering lessons gleaned from previous endeavors? Could we think of a program that really takes into account what people do care—or dream—about and that could sustain public interest over the long term? The answer will come in part 2.