Where does the Moon fit into plans for future human space exploration? From reading the space media, you might get the idea that the very notion is dead and buried, killed by President Obama’s casual dismissal of the idea in a speech over two years ago at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, followed this year by Mitt Romney’s dismissive remarks on the Moon during the Republican primaries. Nevertheless, many in the international community (and in the United States) are keeping the lunar flame alive for a variety of reasons, not the least among them being that it is understood that politicians aren’t rocket scientists – nor should we expect them to be.
The Global Exploration Conference (GLEX) held last month in Washington DC was remarkable for the fact that most of our international space partners are proceeding with plans for lunar return as though its abandonment had never occurred. The Russians were particularly eager to express their desire to establish capability on the Moon at the meeting, while in recent months strong interest in permanent lunar return has been expressed by the Europeans, Canada, India, Japan and of course, China. Moreover, unlike many within our own national space agency, the world sees the Moon not simply as a box to be checked-off on the way to Mars but as the enabling asset for space exploration. As Vladimir Popovkin, head of the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos put it, “It’s a new Moon,” pointing out that the recently confirmed discovery of water at the poles of the Moon enables sustainable, permanent habitation of that body and the creation of new capabilities for voyages to the planets.
Our international space partners believe that spaceflight beyond LEO should entail incremental steps that will gradually extend reach and capability. Once such a paradigm is adopted, expensive designer missions to plant a flag or do a “touch-and-go” at an asteroid are seen as having limited value and making no economic sense. On the other hand, the gradual expansion beyond LEO using nearby assets builds a permanent, lasting space faring capability. The Moon fits into such a scheme by virtue of both its proximity and usefulness. In the absence of some technical miracle, such as the discovery of new physics that fundamentally change the nature of spaceflight, we are wedded to rocket technology for the foreseeable future. The rocket equation dictates that it will remain difficult and expensive to reach space and operate there. Given such problems, some now recognize and conclude that the Moon offers provisioning capability and for this reason and many others, is a desirable destination and near-term goal.
Our pioneering (and current) model of space access requires launching everything from Earth’s surface, taking months to complete a mission, yet gathering minimal information (due to limited time in the vicinity of its designated target) and leaving no lasting or reusable infrastructure in space. This template guarantees that human spaceflights will be infrequent, expensive and subject to abrupt cancellation due to political whims. If one views the civil space program primarily as an annoying expenditure whose ambitions must be constrained by making a previously small portion of the program (such as “commercial” launch services) the raison d’être of the entire effort and deferring any real goals to an indefinite and nebulous future, our current path might seem completely reasonable. However, it appears that the international community believes that space is a real theater of human endeavor and their goal is to make it part of their domain and utility – until recently, also a goal of the American space program. Perhaps it still is.
Despite common perception, the Moon has not been officially abandoned as a goal for the United States space program. The current NASA Authorization Act of 2010 lays out the goals and approaches to be followed by the agency in executing its mission. The Findings by the Congress (section 301) outlines the rationale and goals of the space agency’s human exploration efforts. As I have written previously, in the seven points dealing with future agency activities, cislunar space is mentioned in four and the lunar surface is called out twice as destinations. Development of the ability to use the in situ resources of space to create infrastructure is specifically cited in Sec. 301a (4). The entire section 301 is worth a careful reading. It calls for a program that uses a gradual, incremental approach to the extension of human reach in space beyond LEO, specifically specifying both commercial and international participation. There is nothing in the current law that is at odds with the plans and desires of the international community as expressed at the recent GLEX meeting. The only place one reads about the Moon being abandoned as a national goal for America is in the press and such cases, it is always in the context of a single off-hand remark in one Presidential speech.
From the perspective of two years later, that off-hand remark sounds increasingly ill thought-out and hollow. Given its context in the speech, the statement seems to derive from the idea that lunar return must perforce be a repeat of the Apollo experience of 30 years ago. NASA itself has fed this idea, depicting the return to the Moon as the equivalent of a Gemini program within the Apollo-to-Mars fixation of many in the agency. In their 2006 preliminary plans for lunar return, NASA started out properly by describing the development of an outpost at one of the poles of the Moon and emphasizing human presence and development, but over the next few years architectural studies increasingly drifted away from an outpost and towards the sortie concept, in which we would stage (entirely from Earth) and execute one-off missions to sites of scientific interest all over the Moon for visits of limited duration. Such an exploration approach dissipates assets and thus increases costs and reduces surface capability and infrastructure. It was this exploratory approach to lunar return that the Augustine committee evaluated and declared to be “unaffordable,” not the concept of building a centralized outpost that could support ISRU and space development (an approach that the committee did not even consider).
President Obama signed the NASA Authorization bill of 2010 – a bill crafted when his party controlled Congress – and the findings presented in that bill are now law. So even though the agency and most of the media seem to be blissfully unaware of it, NASA has been charged by Congress to develop space systems capable of conducting missions to and throughout cislunar space, including to the lunar surface. Our international partners agree with this intended direction, convinced that the Moon is the appropriate next destination for humans in space.
NASA’s reluctance to go in this direction, even while other nations are making plans, forfeits the opportunity for our international leadership in space. Our space program has to demonstrate the feasibility of using lunar resources to secure us a place as participants and entrepreneurs in the vast economic future of space.