Monday, July 27, 2009

Is boots on Mars really the ultimate destination?

The presidential panel studying where humankind should send its astronauts is not limiting itself to the moon and Mars. Nor is the group boxing itself into a program that assumes that the ultimate goal is men and women standing on the desolate surface of Mars.

Imagine astronauts blasting off from Kennedy Space Center on a mission to Venus, the Martian moon Phobos (pictured, top left) or a gigantic asteroid.

Documents trickling out of President Barack Obama's human spaceflight committee identify five exploration scenarios being studied for the White House.

The committee wants feedback this week at public meetings near NASA's biggest bases: Houston on Tuesday, Huntsville, Ala., on Wednesday and Cocoa Beach on Thursday (see the agenda).

Among the scenarios is one labeled "flexible path." The plan would focus NASA on developing and improving over time its ability to safely fly people deeper into space. (Click here to read the panel's scenarios).

The others are variations of plans to go to the moon and then Mars, or straight to Mars. But it's the "flexible" destination idea that is vigorously shaking up assumptions about our goals in space.

The committee says the flexible path plan "allows humans to visit a wide number of inner solar system bodies, objects and locations, but not go to the surface of those with deep gravity wells," such as Mars. The committee says it doesn't rule out landings, but "exploration would first exploit all that could be done without landing on a planetary surface."

Landings could come later, after close encounters from orbit and after robots on the surface identify good reasons to land. Planting flags, taking pictures and collecting rocks might not be good enough reasons.

Whoa. That's a jarring shift in focus. Since before we first landed men on the moon in 1969, most people assumed that the next big goal would be to send astronauts to land on Mars.

But 40 years later, there's no Mars program on the books that can meet the technical, safety and financial requirements imposed upon NASA by the public and politicians. Fly people to Mars, don't kill any astronauts, and spend a far smaller fraction of the U.S. budget than we spent to beat the Russians to the moon.

That's mission: impossible.

All my life, space leaders have talked about how the billions of dollars invested in the shuttle program, the International Space Station and robotic scouts are progress in a quest for Mars. The connection is tenuous.

That's not to say NASA wasted time. The shuttle, station and interplanetary probes increased the world's ability to fly and function in space. The missions advanced space travel, and technology spinoffs improved the quality of life on Earth.

The space station shows that we can build complex spacecraft off the planet. It improves our understanding of what it takes for people to live in space long enough to make bolder trips beyond our moon.

The flexible scenario sets NASA on a path that's more compatible with the original vision for the space agency before the Apollo program. NASA was to blaze the trail, break down technical barriers, make space more accessible and share the benefits with the public.

If NASA focuses spending on developing spacecraft to take people deeper into space, the U.S. could afford those close-encounter missions to orbit Venus, Mars, Phobos or an asteroid. Along the way, NASA would gain priceless scientific and operational data.

The extra billions of dollars needed to develop landers, life support and surface gear for long stays on the moon and Mars are not available today anyway. Continuing to try to shove a $30 billion-a-year program into a $20 billion-a-year budget makes no sense.

The flexible plan forces NASA to prove first that it can fly astronauts deeper into space, protecting crews from space radiation and other dangers. NASA would get the chance to demonstrate incremental success, faster and more often.

Astronauts could do exciting research from orbit and give us a better understanding of the reasons why it's necessary for them to go down to the surface.

For instance, what turned Venus from a planet that might have once looked like Earth into an 850-degree hothouse hostile to life? Might we also be inspired by astronauts flying to asteroids or orbiting Mars or its moons?

Thinking back to Apollo, some argue that Apollo 8's orbit of the moon was more important than the subsequent landings. It showed our ability to escape low Earth orbit and venture farther into the solar system.

Twelve men walked on the moon during six visits. The cost was high. The public got bored. Tight budgets forced politicians to kill Apollo. The U.S. retreated to low Earth orbit. But the vision of moving deeper into space was put on hold for decades.

The same could happen after the investment of maybe $1 trillion to land people on Mars: exhilaration, followed by cancellation.

Focusing on the ability to fly deeper into space could give NASA a program able to flex with changing budgets. When times are good, NASA could add more ambitious missions. When times are tight, the agency could focus on more modest plans.

But over time, the ever-improving ability to venture through the solar system would be there. It wouldn't be tossed aside, leaving us to start over from scratch.



Anonymous said...

Look, the 'flexible path' option sounds appealing to us space-nuts; but it is hopelessly unrealistic. What is the justification for these expensive deep-space endeavors? Why do we need to spend billions of dollar to send people on a trip to an asteroid? What is the justification for that? If you wanted to learn more about asteroids and such, then you send robots. Humans aren't much use on super-low gravity worlds like this anyway. Honestly, I don't get it.

Mars, on the other hand, is absolutely suited to human exploration. And there is great justification for it: To find out whether there was ever life there (which is a hugely significant question worth answering).

You also hinted at perhaps the greatest problem that I forsee for the 'flexible path' option when you said: "When times are tight, the agency could focus on more modest plans." I would suggest that under the likely circumstances of a 'flexible path' program (namely limited actual science return) times will be *permanently* tight (remembering that there are competing uses for NASAs money). And that means continuous downsizing of missions to meet the budget and even less investment in new technologies (thereby even further decreasing justification for further funding). I would predict that without a properly justifiable goal for the agency, this whole idea of the 'flexible path' would quickly devolve into an underambitious and underfunded dead-end. Probably a good way to phase out human space flight altogether.

And if you could keep a justifiable goal in mind throughout the program, then wouldn't it make sense just to aim straight for that goal instead of mandering about in deep-space? Perhaps we can look at the recent history of the space program to find the answer to that one...

Flexible path sounds great but it doesn't make any sense in the real world at all.

Mars should be the goal. And once we get to mars you can bet that we can use a *subset* of the hardware that we've developed to get there to visit all those other locations if you really wanted to. That makes more sense to me.

NASA needs a well-defined and justifiable *goal*. Without one it is doomed to perpetual mediocrity. Or worse; permanent dissolution.

Be careful what you wish for.

- Mike

John Kelly said...

Those are good points Mike and the last line is the scariest. Be careful what you wish for.

I thought about that a lot while writing this. You do hand someone the capability to phase out human space flight, if you believe people are inclined to kill this program. I don't believe there is enough support to kill it altogether.

I think the real value of what Augustine's done here is to open the debate to scenarios beyond the traditional. Asking hard, uncomfortable questions is a good thing. Posing some interesting alternatives is a good thing for the debate.

The big problem with the existing system is that NASA evolved the Vision for Space Exploration into something that looks an awful lot like Apollo. They've focused all their energy on developing new launch vehicles (and they're over budget and behind already) and now they're talking about how the moon missions are going to look a lot like Apollo. I thought NASA was going back to the moon to develop capabilities to go to Mars, not to repeat the short visits made there 40 years ago.

Every time the budget tightens, they start stripping capabilities out of the spacecraft and related systems, reducing spacecraft once capable of fielding a Mars mission down to something that might barely reach the space station.

There's not enough money to do the Vision, so they're doing a version that is a shadow of what President Bush laid out. Correct that: they're trying to do it.

Within the current budget, even their top brass are predicting a moon landing no earlier than 2028 now. Does anyone see a big infusion of cash coming here?

Anonymous said...


Your article in today's Florida Today was very interesting. I think your perspective is very close to the true situation, but your piece left out a few salient points.

The Vision for Space Exploration laid out by President Bush in 2004 (and endorsed by two different Congresses) did indeed call for a return to the Moon, but NOT to repeat what Apollo did 40 years ago. NASA was directed to return to the Moon to learn new skills of space faring, specifically, to learn how to use the material and energy resources of the Moon to create new capabilities in space. This involves extracting usable products from lunar materials such as air, water, and rocket propellant, all of which allow us to go farther and stay longer on the Moon and ultimately, the planets. Learning how to use space resources was specifically mentioned in the original Presidential speech. It's importance is primal – creating a logistical depot on the Moon allows you to routinely access not only the lunar surface, but any other point in cislunar space (the volume between Earth and Moon), where all of our space assets reside. Moreover, once this system is in place, we have the innate ability to go to the planets.

This is the true meaning of the Vision, one which NASA changed into a "manned Mars mission" from the beginning. They did this because the idea of an incremental program, built with small, individual, cumulative steps, is a mode of operation unknown to them. NASA's mode of business is the Apollo-template: open the money spigots and turn us loose. This is why the ESAS architecture is configured the way it is – you don't need an Ares V to go to the Moon, but you DO need it to go to Mars in an Apollo-style program.

The idea that we should go to points in space with the aim of "getting more space experience" is similar conceptually to the space station concept. Yes, it did teach us how to build large structures in space. But what next? The purpose of going to the lunar surface is to USE what's there to make useful stuff. We cannot do that from a Lagrangian point. The only thing in empty space is what we put there. The Moon has an abundance of natural resources that can be converted into what we need; we only need to learn how to do it.

Thus, I agree with your principal conclusion that Mars is not (nor should be) a destination for a "flags and footprints" Apollo-style mission. But the Vision was never about that.

I attach for your information a white paper that I drafted for the Augustine Commission. The issue of rockets and architectures is quite irrelevant; the real issue is WHY are you going to space and WHAT is your mission? I attempt to answer those questions in this document.

Sincerely yours,
Paul Spudis

Anonymous said...

I think one of the problems was that Bush's ideas of using the moon as a 'launchpad' were seriously misguided from the beginning. The idea of generating rocket fuel from moon rocks (however well-intentioned) was neither economically sensible nor realistically implementable. NASA just couldn't take the idea seriously. But they still needed a beyond-LEO goal to work toward so that became simply 'the moon by 2020' or thereabouts; Totally missing the original idea behind Bush's vision, which was to ultimately get to Mars (albeit with the moon as a 'launchpad' for that purpose). But a date was never set for Mars so that inevitably got pushed back into the 'do it later' pile. Hence the situation that we find ourselves in today.

I think that it is regrettable that Bush's science advisors at the time didn't do their homework properly (and also behind closed doors). Their plan sounded cool but was actually very poorly thought out. Highly regrettable IMHO.

The public review committee that has just been established should have been done way back in 2004 *before* Bush had made his unfortunate (albeit well-intentioned) statements. The fact that we have had to wait 5 years for this astounds me.

I suggest we'd better learn to stop making these poor mistakes.

- Mike

Anonymous said...

>> The idea of generating rocket fuel from moon rocks (however well-intentioned) was neither economically sensible nor realistically implementable <<

Totally wrong. There's nothing crazy about this idea, either conceptually or practically. The Moon contains the elements we need to make life-support consumables and rocket propellant. The idea was NOT to "launch the Mars spacecraft from a pad on the Moon" -- it was to produce propellant on the Moon that could fuel a Mars mission (and spacecraft to other destinations as well).

And your impression that the VSE was "all about Mars" is also wrong, although that appears to be a widespread impression throughout NASA as well. Since the agency doesn't understand why they are going to the Moon, I'm not surprised that others don't either.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, I feel we need to set the long, long term goal. When I think of going to the moon or going to Mars, I really have to ask myself what is the purpose? This is a step (or leap if you prefer), but towards which long term goal. The majority of the public are dreamers as far as expectations of the space program. We should have multiple space stations, and the capability to travel through worm holes. It could be great science, but as of right now it is great science-fiction.

So a long, long term goal needs to be set. That goal should be expanding mankind's existence beyond the earth itself. It's logical. First of all, we use the earth. We mine and drill the natural resources of the earth. People need to understand that we will eventually strip the resources of the planet to low levels. We do not know the long term effects of this either. Do we know how the natural chemistry of the earth will change once we have depleted it of oil?

Second is existence. It has become accepted that the age of the dinosaurs ended with a great impact of a meteor. If this were to happen again, we couldn't stop it. One great impact and everything that we have been since the beginning of civilization is gone. By confining all of our species to only one planet, we are setting humanity up to be a one shot kill. This could happen at any time, and we would have very little time to prepare once discovered.

This should be the ultimate goal of not only NASA but every avenue of space exploration. When America was discovered, they just didn't take some dirt and rocks back home across the sea. They colonized it, and it worked. I am not saying that I can lay out a time-line when this could be completed. I can't even tell you all of the technology we need to develop to even make this possible. All I know is that everything that we do with our space program, should be done with this ultimate goal in line.

I know how unrealistic this post sounds, but these questions need answered. Sure a select few astronauts can "visit" Mars but how is that a benefit to me? Don't get me wrong. I love the work our space program does. I get pumped up watching shuttle launches and EVA's. When LRO sent back it's first images of the moon, I was a kid in a candy store. The majority of the public however who doesn't understand the significance of this work, are not motivated to support a space program.

The goal should be "Insure the existence of the human race beyond a habitable existence on Earth". If that is not enough to spark a greater public interest, we should just quit now.

Paul Whitmore

Anonymous said...

The "Flexible Path Plan" is a great idea. However we should be realistic on our approach. In the past few years it seems that our leaders have forgotten the first line of Mr. Armstrong's Moon message "That's One Small Step..." and have focused more on the second line "One Giant Leap..."Mars is a great idea, Asteroids very important and deep space inevitable.

Unfortunately America's historical approach to the exploration of space has been to plan, achieve and then to move on to another idea all together. We've forgotten that landing on the Moon wasn't President Kennedy's entire hope for the program and that President Bush redirected America's mission to the moon in order to establish a launch facility for deeper exploration.

We currently have the perfect opportunity to continue our small steps while preparing for giant leaps. For the sake of immediate discoveries, jobs and equally important American Morale we should continue using Pad A to launch the space shuttle and a "Shuttle-Derived Vehicle" to the space station. Mankind needs the discoveries that will be made there and America should be a MAJOR part of the involvement.

Additionally, we have significant forward momentum started on capabilities that could bring us back to the moon and complete our original idea of building a lunar launch and research complex that will not only allow for significant technological breakthroughs but provide us with more cost effective ways of exploring broader and deeper destinations. The Moons very low gravity and its 238,855 mile head start would allow for cheaper, faster exploration. In conclusion America should develop methods and technologies that are not just dead-end single purpose ideas but integral parts to the next ideas.

Timm Betts

no one of consequence said...

John, Thank you for a nicely worded article - its much been on my mind this choice.

Mike makes an excellent comment on the appropriateness of "flexible path" - he worries that people "won't get it". I think John Kennedy's decision to go to the moon was simply that - something people would get.

But we don't have that anymore as a option - Kennedy could do it because it hadn't been done. Having shown the public Mars myself firsthand, and helped to get them to understand the impact of visiting the most adjacent world, I can tell you that the Moon is obvious to them while Mars is much more vague.
So it doesn't constitute a Kennedy-like "get it" objective.

We really are in a difficult situation here. I think the best approach is take the vision to the highest level - that our target is the manned access to the entire solar system - that we can go anywhere, live anyplace in the entire collection of planets, asteroids, comets, moons ... all of it. And we can find the few handful of interesting places salted through the enormity of solar system - where life, energy, and other strategic needs will eventually justify sustained visits.

Call it the "conquest of space" itself.

Apollo was too quick and misunderstood by the public. It was over too quickly. We need a constant communication, a constant series of visits and involvements with parts the solar system. A mission to everywhere, bringing along the public one step at a time.

Perhaps this might allow the time for debate/education for larger visions like the ones Timm Betts brings up.

Bruce said...

Has anybody ever thought about doing something to the atmosphere of Venus to make it change and become inhabitable? I'm not a scientist, but I am imagining something like sending canisters full of bugs that eat sulphuric acid and spit out oxygen. Or a huge shade that blocks the Sun and cools the planet off, causing the acid to go away, something like that. In other words induced climate change.

Anonymous said...

One major problem with the Constellation program is that it is designing a single vehicle to do everything -- go to the Space Station, go to the Moon, and eventually go to Mars. On Earth, we use different types of vehicles for different purposes. For short trips to and from work, a car will do. To go on a vacation to Aruba, take a plane. To ship containers of shoes from China to the US, a ship. If we make a single vehicle to do all these things, it doesn't do what anybody needs it to do.

Certainly, standardization of certain elements of the program is essential to keep costs down, but don't assume you will use the same space vehicle for every trip beyond the atmosphere. Design a launch vehicle that will carry the elements you will need for any mission, then incrementally design and build the vehicles (or components of larger vehicles) that you will need as you expand your capabilities for longer and more distant missions.

Anonymous said...

A brief comment in support of the flexible approach. Don't underestimate the power of the vision that humans can become a truly spacefaring civilization. What this generation must do is to sacrifice the goal of boots and flags, and build the infrastructure that will allow our children to land wherever they wish in the solar system. Parents are good at making sacrifices. The really valuable things cost a lot more than money, and those kinds of costs are what truly inspire people.