The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceX Mars base
Visions of human spaceflight have to go beyond a single landing of humans on Mars but rather the settlement of humans on Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. (credit: SpaceX)

Commentary on the Planetary Society’s “Principles for Human Spaceflight”

Bookmark and Share

Recently The Planetary Society released a set of principles codifying its approach to human spaceflight policy. We welcome the Planetary Society to this new endeavor and applaud the efforts of the Planetary Society to support human spaceflight. While this document is a valuable contribution to the ongoing dialog concerning the means and ends of human spaceflight, we believe that these principles call for further development.

Principle #1: Send humans beyond low Earth orbit, with the ultimate goal of landing humans on Mars.

Setting “landing humans on Mars” suffers from being a “little dream” compared to the much vaster and more compelling visions of Elon Musk’s city on Mars and Jeff Bezos’ “Millions of people living and working in space.”

In keeping with the more ambitious goal of spreading human societies throughout the solar system (see the National Space Society Roadmap to Space Settlement as one example), simply making the landing of humans on Mars the “ultimate” goal of human spaceflight is akin to suggesting that the “ultimate” goal of the human diaspora out of Africa was to cross a large river on a dug-out canoe. Additionally, there are a significant number of goals for humans in space that might logically be more compelling than “putting boots on Mars,” including:

  • A sustainable lunar mining operation;
  • A human settlement in low radiation equatorial low Earth orbit; and
  • Demonstration in a variable gravity facility that humans can survive and thrive in a variety of gravity levels, including that of Mars and the Moon.

Additionally, making “landing humans on Mars” the goal sets us up for Apollo redux, where after a few flights the project is abandoned since the goal has been completely accomplished.

Finally, setting “landing humans on Mars” suffers from being a “little dream” compared to the much vaster and more compelling visions of Elon Musk’s city on Mars and Jeff Bezos’ “Millions of people living and working in space.” A real choice exists for a young person interested in space: Join SpaceX as a “Mars Development Engineer” (yes, this is a real title) to build a city on Mars or work at NASA in the hopes that by 2030 a few professional astronauts may walk on Mars. We believe NASA needs to embrace a larger future, thus enabling NASA and private efforts to work synergistically to explore, develop, and settle space.

Principle #2: Develop a Plan that includes clear milestones toward sending humans to Mars, and publicize a timeline and budget by which external parties and Congress can measure NASA’s progress to this end.

Although apparently common sense, the historical impact of this approach is to force the program to first fully lay out projected costs for many decades based on very conservative assumptions about costs, while the history of technological advancement shows that costs can drop precipitously due to innovations in technology and manufacturing.

Once the program is underway, a focus on a timeline tends to result in continuous descoping of the program to fit into the timeline, even to the point that what gets accomplished is, in the worst case, little more than an unsustainable stunt. Since the Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0 in 2009, NASA has wisely refused to produce fully costed Mars plans with timelines. Instead, the focus should be on what can be accomplished over four- and eight-year periods, with a clear understanding of how these four- and eight-year goals support longer-term human spaceflight goals, including but not limited to exploration, development, and settlement of Mars.

Principle #3: Prioritize human spaceflight technology development in areas that sustain human psychological and physical health for long duration spaceflight.

We agree with the importance of this principle. A helpful addition would be some specific notion of what might be the sort of research that is not currently being done by NASA that is important to long-duration human spaceflight. A vital technology for this enterprise that has been largely ignored by NASA is the creation of artificial gravity via rotation. Another area that demands attention is the usage of in-space resources from the Moon or asteroids for radiation shielding. Work on in-space agriculture and long-term environmental and life support systems remains in its infancy. It sometimes appears that NASA avoids investigating the technologies that are the most important to our long-term future in space out of a desire to avoid increasing the cost “putting boots on Mars.”

Principle #4: Engage the scientific community from the earliest stages of planning to ensure significant scientific return from its human spaceflight program.

NASA must move beyond “slash and burn” space exploration, where each new project destroys all previous efforts, and instead create a sustainable, permanent road to deep space that includes LEO, the Moon, and cislunar space.

This is another principle that appears beyond dispute. However, unmentioned in this principle lies a looming conflict between the desire of some scientists to maintain a pristine Martian environment and the inevitable contamination that will result from even a few astronauts on Mars, let alone an entire city of colonists. With a real potential that the first SpaceX landings on Mars will be less than a decade in the future, the importance of an open dialog on this topic cannot be exaggerated.

Principle #5: Work with international and private sector partners to build a broad coalition of support for these efforts.

We applaud the recognition by the Planetary Society of the importance of new contracting methods in space exploration and development, and the treatment of commercial companies as partners rather than mere contractors. In the case of Mars exploration, the implementation of this principle would minimally require NASA to make use of new heavy lift vehicles like the Falcon Heavy and New Glenn, while taking seriously SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket/Big Falcon Spaceship (BFR/BFS) Mars plans. Additionally, NASA should incorporate appropriate elements of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Cislunar 1000 vision into their plans. A relatively low-risk approach would be for NASA to purchase a return trip to Earth from a SpaceX BFS for the samples Mars 2020 will collect. Such a partnership would generate great science while saving NASA billions of dollars.

Principle #6: Plan for an orderly transition away from the International Space Station (ISS) by the mid-2020s, unless adequate budget increases are provided to support deep space exploration efforts.

The real meat of this principle is, “If new funding is not forthcoming the nation’s priority must be on the deep space exploration effort, and NASA therefore must transition away from its primary funding and management responsibility for the ISS.”

This principle has already run into the buzz saw of congressional reality, as the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has approved S.3277 (Space Frontier Act of 2018) calling for the extension of the ISS to 2030, with no special budget increase for deep space programs. Although we are not in principle opposed to some funding currently applied to the ISS moving to support other projects, we reject the vision that NASA should abandon LEO in favor of deep space. NASA must move beyond “slash and burn” space exploration, where each new project destroys all previous efforts, and instead create a sustainable, permanent road to deep space that includes LEO, the Moon, and cislunar space.

We support the National Space Society vision for future commercial LEO stations described here. We are not against extending the ISS beyond 2025, but believe that a focus on ensuring that commercial LEO Stations come into operational reality by 2025 should be the driving principle for NASA LEO operations.

Principle #7: Utilize low Earth orbit primarily for training and technology development that enables deep space technology.

This “principle” suggests that NASA abandon all LEO efforts other than astronaut training and deep-space technology testing. While we support NASA continuing to train astronauts and do deep-space technology testing in low Earth orbit, the termination of all the amazing research now being done on the ISS, including that organized as part of the ISS National Lab, would be tragedy of vast proportions. NASA needs to commit, now, to a sustained presence in LEO that includes the continuous operation of the ISS National Lab on future commercial LEO stations.

Principle #8: Create a pathway for the US private sector to take on activities previously led by NASA in low Earth orbit.

Although this principle is a step in the right direction, it falls short of envisioning a robust network of commercial LEO stations meeting a full range of public and private needs. The Planetary Society cautions against “creating a monopsony – a single buyer market.” At the current time, the primary risk is not that NASA will become the single buyer of LEO services, but that NASA will not commit to purchasing any LEO services at all, preferring instead to rely on “hope” that commercial entities will step forward. Additionally, a long-term commitment to maintaining a US National Lab in LEO Is no more a “monopsony” than the current commitment that the US government has to the Argonne, Sandia, or Livermore national labs.

As artificial intelligence improves, the need for humans to be directly involved in exploration will rapidly diminish. The only real reason for humans to be in space is settlement.

With the efforts by Axiom, Bigelow, Nanoracks, Made In Space, and others to develop commercial LEO operations, we can see at least the outline of a future thriving economy in space near Earth. Planetary Society Principle #8 recognizes these vibrant activities, but is overly limiting in two ways:

  • The private sector needs to be nurtured to not just “take on activities previously led by NASA” but to aggressively develop business opportunities in LEO that NASA has substantially neglected, including but not limited to tourism, film/TV production, satellite manufacturing, and so on.
  • With programs like Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), NASA is taking the first steps to creating a thriving cislunar economy. The support of this effort by NASA to transfer beyond Earth orbit activities previously led by NASA to commercial entities is essential to the creation of the infrastructure for sustainable human spaceflight.

What then might be an improved set of principles for human spaceflight? Our suggestions follow:

Principle #1: The horizon goal for human spaceflight is the development and settlement of the solar system.

As artificial intelligence improves, the need for humans to be directly involved in exploration will rapidly diminish. The only real reason for humans to be in space is settlement, and settlement will be unaffordable without first creating a self-sustaining space-based economy. The presence of humans in space should grow organically from space development plans, not as a series of “boots on the ground” imitations of Apollo.

Principle #2: The role of NASA should be to enable the development and settlement of the solar system via robotic exploration, technology development and demonstrations, and the systematic creation of “stepping stones” similar to the ISS.

Apollo is an unsustainable model for space exploration. Instead, the creation of “stepping stones” first in LEO, then in cislunar space and on the lunar surface, and eventually in Mars orbit and the Martian surface, will allow these growing infrastructure elements to be the hubs that enable further exploration.

Principle #3: NASA should focus technology development on the most challenging obstacles to the settlement and development of space, including ISRU, artificial gravity, and closed-cycle ecosystems/agriculture.

Lack of fundamental knowledge about how to live permanently in space is a major obstacle to the development and settlement of the solar system. By far the most urgent question is finding out the amount of gravity required for higher-order life to thrive.

Principle #4: Scientific return should be only one aspect of how human spaceflight projects are evaluated. The contributions of each project to space development and settlement should be equally weighted with scientific return.

The focus of NASA currently lies mostly with one-shot exploration missions, to the neglect of efforts that will lead to a sustainable future in space. The relatively recent advent of commercial resupply of the ISS is perhaps the most significant NASA contribution to space development since the early days of communication satellite research.

Principle #5: The exploration, development, and settlement of space should be open to all nations, so we should work to ensure that those who lead early efforts do not use that position to unfairly impede the efforts of these who start later.

The focus of NASA currently lies mostly with one-shot exploration missions, to the neglect of efforts that will lead to a sustainable future in space.

The current management of the limited stock of slots for geosynchronous satellites suggests a method by which limited resources in space might be developed without the creation of an onerous international bureaucracy, with some part of the available resources reserved for late-comers, and with a requirement that unused locations can be taken over by interested parties. Such an approach seems appropriate for resources such as lunar polar ice. For much more abundant resources, such as near-Earth asteroids, there appears to be no need for such a system.

Principle #6: The development and settlement of space will primarily result from the efforts of corporations and private citizens. The government should enable these efforts rather than burden them. An appropriate regulatory and legal regime is foundational to the development and settlement of space, and the US government has made a good start toward assuring that US citizens and corporations have the right to use and own resources obtained in space in the context of the outer space treaty.

Under no circumstances should the US support international efforts such as the so-called “Moon Treaty,” which if enforced will only impede the development of space resources.

Principle #7: Plan for a gapless transition of LEO human spaceflight, including the ISS national lab, from the ISS to future commercial LEO stations. This will require a long-term commitment to support a LEO national lab and ongoing NASA activity in LEO.

The missing piece here is an out-year financial commitment by NASA to LEO after the ISS. One way of making this idea concrete is to provide post-ISS funds to support the current level of upmass and downmass cargo and crew to commercial stations that are now delivered the ISS. This would result in a substantial savings over current ISS costs, allowing the freed-up funds to support activities deeper in space.

Principle #8: As the government creates “stepping stones” in cislunar space and beyond, there should be an orderly process where operations and installations are transitioned to a commercial basis when the technology and infrastructure has developed to the point that such a transfer is sustainable.

A concrete example might be the usage of commercial services to resupply the proposed Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway. Another example is the purchase of landing services on the Moon by NASA to jump-start a commercial lunar lander industry.

Note: we are temporarily moderating all comments subcommitted to deal with a surge in spam.