Filed under: Civil Space Flight, Commercial Space Flight, Lunar Resources, National Space Policy, Off-Earth Resources, Space Pioneers
With the shuttle program behind us and International Space Station construction now complete, we begin a new era in space exploration. The long-sought foothold in space that Station provides has finally been established, and it serves as our jump off point from low Earth orbit to all points beyond. More than that, it stands as the corner stone of a new orbiting infrastructure that will be needed for any course we choose to undertake next.
The choice of our next destination sets in motion the many cogs and wheels that make up the much larger machine of space exploration. It is with great care then that we must consider the direction in which we set off before that machine gains momentum. We’ve already seen the cost of breaking that momentum: the $9 billion that went into the now cancelled Constellation program, for instance; squandered money that could have gone a long way towards moving mankind out into space on a sustainable path. The original Vision for Space Exploration embodied in the Constellation program underwent too many changes, too many course corrections. By the time of its demise, Constellation bore little resemblance to the program initially set in motion under the O’Keefe leadership of the early to mid two thousands. This sad fact underscores the importance of staying the course.
Where should we go next? The answer to that question must address the sustainability of space exploration. Anything less is to repeat the mistakes of the past. Sustainability means infrastructure, which can be thought of in much the same terms as we think of infrastructure here on Earth: roads; bridges; airports; utilities; communications; waste disposal; shipping, emergency services, etc. The list goes on. There is an entire infrastructure that will be needed in space to support a human presence there, long term. The International Space Station – aside from its function as an orbiting laboratory – is the first baby step in that direction. Where we pick to go into space next must foster and support the emergence of infrastructure. The logic is inescapable. Just as inescapable are the economics. That’s why when we speak of building infrastructure, we’re necessarily going to be limited to the area close to home: Earth orbit; cislunar space or the space between the highest Earth orbit and the moon; and the lunar surface itself.
The Obama Administration’s vision for space exploration is to send NASA astronauts to an asteroid, purportedly as the means to save civilization in the event one was discovered to be on a collision course with Earth. Exactly what humans would do once there hasn’t been worked out. Without any means to carry out its objective, the plan is vague and without substance. At the outset, it conspicuously fails to address the important issues we’ve just laid out.
First, a mission to re-route an asteroid does not need humans. Such an endeavor can be effectively carried out with robotic spacecraft. The methods proposed, ranging from firing nuclear bombs to focusing light beams on a menacing asteroid, do not require or use astronauts.
Its secondary mission is to serve as a stepping stone for future missions to Mars, but an asteroid is very different from a planet and thus requires different technologies. Tools such as jetpacks, tethers, bungees, nets and spiderwebs to allow explorers to float just above the surface of an asteroid while attached to a smaller mini-spaceship are all redundant to the ultimate missions the administration claims they support.
When we consider these facts in the light of day, the Obama plan begins to appear frivolous; more a stunt than serious exploration. An asteroid is no more than the cosmic analog to an iceberg. Yet plans are being drafted to send astronauts there on a mission that would not advance a human presence in space in any way, whatsoever, beyond the hand full of individuals making the trip. Can you imagine figures of history having committed the same folly?
Since the dawn of the space age it was the civil space program alone to amalgamate our drive for exploration beyond Earth. But things are changing and evolving. The private sector is stepping in to shoulder some of the loads traditionally carried by the government like building and operating rockets to low Earth orbit. Of course the private sector has partnered with the space agency from the beginning, so what’s different today? Though most commercial entities – the larger ones in particular – still prefer the safety of the more traditional public-private partnership in which the government assumes all the risk, a few bold entrepreneurs have stepped up and taken a seat at the table. They are seeding the development of space systems and vehicles using their own private capital. Founder of Paypal Elon Musk, cofounder of id Software John Carmack who made such computer games as Doom, Sir Richard Branson who founded the Virgin conglomerate, founder of Budget Suites of America Robert Bigelow, founder, president and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Alan are among the most notable people to invest hundreds of millions in the aggregate so far.
Those investments were and continue to be anything but a safe bet. The men and women investing their fortunes and reputations in the very risky business of human space flight know that they stand to lose it all, yet they continue despite that risk. Why? Because the dream of exploration, the yearning to set out for parts unknown, is not the sole domain of NASA. All the passion and the scientific and engineering talent for which the space agency has come to be known exists in spades in the private sector.
There is something, however, that sets the private sector apart from the government; something that we take as a tacit to the urge for space travel, yet has never been part of NASA’s charter. That something is the impulse to colonize and see everyone benefit from the limitless resources and opportunities of space.
We often assume that it is the role of NASA to colonize space since so much of what they do can lead to that end, but that assumption is entirely false. The agency’s function is that of research and development of new space technologies. That those technologies either could or should be used for the colonization of space lies completely outside their purview. It may be at some future time that their charter is amended to include colonization, but for now, it is strictly R&D.
Even without a mandate for colonization, the government still has the obligation to set clearly defined goals that advance sustained human access to space. Not only does the Administration’s mission to send NASA astronauts to an asteroid fail to meet this requirement, it fails even to justify the stated reasons for carrying out the plan. Indeed it smacks of not-invented-here: a malady that would seem to afflict Washington with each successive administration.
The market forces that drive business are fortunately very different from those of politics. If a company were to radically change course every 4 years as so often happens inside the Beltway, it would not remain in business for long. The instability and indecision our government has displayed over the past 10 years in matters of space have resulted in its current languor. Without a change of leadership , the government cannot be relied upon to pursue the obvious course that scientific discoveries on the moon have brought to light, so it is likely that private enterprise will have to rise to the occasion.
NASA’s proposed next big effort is to build a rocket to replace the space shuttle. And the price tag? Thirty-eight billion dollars or about 10 times what private industry, as exemplified by SpaceX, will charge for the same job. Is this really the best use of taxpayer dollars?
Proponents argue that a government-owned rocket is needed as an alternative in the event that the commercial sector fails to deliver a viable system, but that alone is not sufficient reason for going ahead with the plan. There must be a justifiable cost benefit. If the current debt crisis teaches us anything, it is that the US government is not a bottomless pit of cash.
Over the projected 10 years that it will require to design (and yes I know it will stem from heritage shuttle systems, but it’s hardly plug-and-play), build, test and put into operations this new system, it is expected to fly only twice. That’s a flight rate than doesn’t begin to cover even the paltry rate of the shuttle. First, it was promised that the shuttle would be cheaper to operate than the single-use rockets like the Saturn V it replaced. That did not materialize. The life-averaged cost of operating the shuttle was about $1.3 billion per launch. Much of the reason for that astronomical price tag was low flight rate, which brings us to item two. The shuttle was to have flown every 30 days, but in it’s final 5 years of flight, it averaged about 4 flights per year: just 25% the rate originally sought. In every measurable sense, the space shuttle failed to deliver on the promise of exceeding it’s predecessor’s capabilities. And now, NASA proposes to build another, even more expensive system demanding 19 times the operations cost of the now-retired orbiters. The term used to describe this class of vehicle is “heavy lift,” referring to it’s ability to lift large payloads into space. But perhaps it better describes the force required to lift the tons of cash required to operate it.
R&D is something the space agency does extremely well, yet it continually strays into areas well outside its bailiwick. There is no other reason for this than poor management; one with a chronic lack of focus and understanding of its own charter.
Seasoned space professionals recognize a term used early in this article: operations. The word is the very antithesis of research and development, which is the stated purpose of the space agency. Once a technology moves from the R&D world into regular use – as rockets now have – it becomes operational, at which point it should be tasked to another entity with the manufacturing and fiscal agility to deliver the system at a reasonable cost. This in no way describes NASA.
It’s one thing to deliver criticism and another to follow it with better ideas. To formulate them, we start with a premise and a question. Our premise is that our sole purpose is in creating something never created before; in other words, research and development. The question is simple: where is research and development in space most needed? Infrastructure. And why is that? The biggest impediment to making space exploration attainable on a permanent basis is cost, and the biggest contributor to cost is a lack of infrastructure to support the venture.
Consider this: every time a spacecraft leaves Earth, it must carry absolutely everything with it that will need during the mission. This one fact adds tremendously to the cost per flight. Remove that restriction, and the cost dramatically drops.
A giant leap forward would be to develop orbiting refueling stations. NASA has begun to fund this type of research but at levels so modest as to amount an afterthought. It has awarded $2.4 million to four companies to begin looking at ways to store cryogenic fuels on orbit. The contention here is not that the agency has failed to identify fuel depots as a need but rather that it grossly underfunds the effort. The priority given the rocket development program should instead go into infrastructure, but the proverbial cart has been placed in front of the horse.
There are still other infrastructure technologies that should be getting the fast track as well such as on-orbit manufacturing processes. If we’re to build interplanetary vehicles and support system in a cost-effective manner, we’ll need to know how to assemble them in space. Building complete systems and launching them from the ground is too expensive, not to mention restrictive. But it all comes down to one thing: focus. NASA has taken its eye off of what’s important and concentrated it on duplication of effort, and it comes at the expense of forward momentum in space exploration.
Perhaps we’ve become so accustomed to thinking in terms of “some day” that we fail to see what’s possible here and now if we simply stay focused and prioritize. Why don’t we try taking a recommendation from Larry The Cable Guy and “git-r-done.” Heck, if for no other reason than to see what happens when you think outside the box.
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, Commercial Space Flight, National Space Policy
August alone will see a thousand jobs lost as a result of the shuttle’s demise; a scary development to be sure. But it’s hardly the first time the manned space program has faced this kind of hardship and transition.
You may recall a certain scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) notes the disappearance of one of the launch pad workers who’d only moments before been visible through the capsule window. He quips, “I vonder vere Guenter vent” in a distinctive German accent, making a clever play on words with the man’s name. He was talking about Guenter Wendt, a German immigrant to the United States following World War II who had joined the space program in its early days – even before Project Mercury – and had climbed through the ranks to the position of Pad Leader.
In his 2001 autobiography title The Unbroken Chain (available through Apogee Books, which I can enthusiastically recommend) Guenter speaks about the angst he himself – a top ranked and well known space professional – faced as the Apollo program came to a close. Describing launch day for the final Saturn rocket, the so-called Apollo-Soyuz Test Project meant to ease strained relations between the US and the former Soviet Union, he writes:
Later that day, Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton, and Vance Brand became the last three men to launch into space atop a Saturn rocket. I watched the final launch from the fallback area, fully aware that our pioneering days were over. Never again would an Apollo spacecraft enter space. And with the Shuttle program still several years away, many people were observing their final manned launch of any type. As the vehicle arched out over the Atlantic, I watched union shop supervisors hand out termination notices. For many, many dedicated workers, the end of the chain had been reached.
The fact is, just as we endured the pains of transition in those days, so too must we today, though one could make a compelling argument that moving from Apollo to shuttle was a step backward. We find ourselves in the precarious and expensive position now of having to reinvent much of the technology used back then, albeit with upgrades to the underlying computer systems that have made quantum leaps forward since. Even so, the space capsule design demonstrated so successfully by Apollo and its precursors, was invented half a century ago.
Whether you feel the shuttle was a necessary next step following Apollo or a pointless detour on the road to deep space, the time has come to boldly embrace the next era. At some point, Lewis and Clarke had to move from the river bank to the interior in order to realize the goals of their expedition. Low earth orbit, which was by design the limit of shuttle’s capabilities, has been our riverbank. We cannot afford to take our eyes from the real objective: deep space. More than that, we cannot afford to continue a program that proved far, far more expensive than its designers promised. Let’s get off the riverbank on which we’ve been stranded for too long and move onward and upward. Yes, the process of growth is painful, but just as Guenter Wendt did eventually find his next job in space and flourished there for decades until his retirement, we’ll emerge from this temporary slump in a place that will allow us unlimited and continuous growth and perhaps a little something extra: seamless transitions between technological steps. Imagine that.
What is required from us now is courage, vision and determination; qualities we have in spades once we leave our comfort zone. Remember the words of Christopher Columbus who said, “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, Commercial Space Flight
The 42nd Anniversary of the humankind’s first lunar landing by Apollo 11 on July 20, 2011, followed by the return of STS-135 on the next day, concluding the final flight of a United States Space Shuttle, places a capstone on the remarkable accomplishments of the post-Apollo generations of space engineers, builders and operators.
Those of us who were in attendance at the launch of Atlantis on July 8, 2011, felt both pride in this final accomplishment and sadness at another unnecessary, ill-conceived and excessively prolonged break in America’s commitment to lead humankind in space. Pad 39A, the Vehicle Assembly Building, and the Crawler Transporter stand in the Florida sunshine as still functional but unwanted relics of past glories. Unfortunately, these momentous events also starkly frame the deficiencies in American space policy relative to long-term national interests. This policy began its slow decline in 1968-69 when the Johnson and Nixon Administrations began the process to end procurements of the Saturn V boosters and spacecraft advocated by Eisenhower and Kennedy for the Apollo Moon-landing Program.
The absence of any significant national goals epitomizes current space policy. That policy lacks any coherent strategy to lead humankind in space and promote liberty there and on Earth. Failure of all Administrations and Congresses since Eisenhower and Kennedy to maintain a sustainable, indefinite commitment to human deep space exploration and settlement has undermined America’s status in the world and the technological foundations necessary for national security and economic growth. We have reached a point where America and its partners depend on Russia for future access to the International Space Station. More critically, we will be ceding the Moon and deep space to China. This should be an intolerable situation to American taxpayers who paid for most of the Space Station and whose Astronauts blazed the trail for humankind to the Moon.
President George W. Bush provided the Nation with a space policy in 2004 that met critical geopolitical requirements. If it had been properly funded by Congress, Bush’s policy would have created a replacement for the Space Shuttle by 2010 and, more importantly, provided for a return to the Moon on the way to Mars. Mr. Bush, however, did not ask Congress for the funds necessary to fully implement his Constellation Program. Constellation nonetheless could have been executed fully when President Barack Obama took office in 2009, although with a several year delay in the availability of the Shuttle replacement spacecraft (Orion).
President Obama, however, soon canceled Constellation, reflecting his personal bias against American exceptionalism and anything identified with Bush. His visions of largely unsupervised private contractors providing astronaut transportation to space and an unproductive visit to an asteroid are just that, unproven “visions” but hardly visionary. In light of increases of trillions of dollars in recent federal government spending, the $3 billion per year cost of implementing a “shovel ready” and “employment ready” Constellation Program appears, relatively, very small. The enormous geopolitical damage to America’s world leadership role that its cancellation has brought about will cost us dearly in the future.
Atlantis’s final arrival in Earth-orbit was historically comparable to the arrivals of the last covered wagon at Western destinations just before the Union Pacific, Central Pacific, Santa Fe and other railroads reached rapidly expanding local economies in the late 1800s. Unbelievably, and unlike the replacement of covered wagon technology with railroad technology, no American replacement exists for the Space Shuttle. Now that Obama has made NASA largely irrelevant in America’s future, the next President and Congress must consider how to reverse this damage to national security and to the future motivation of young Americans.
The next President must seriously consider focusing United States’ space goals on deep space exploration. Until the Space Station must be shut down and deorbited, NASA can continue to be responsible for managing related international obligations. A separate and intense focus on deep space, however, could be accomplished by reassignment of most NASA functions to other agencies and the creation of a new National Space Exploration Agency (NSEA) [see http://americasuncommonsense.com, Essay 46]. This would be a proper tribute to the sacrifices made on behalf of America by the personnel of NASA and its contractors since 1958. A clear commitment to deep space would also restore America’s geopolitical will to lead humankind into the future.
Harrison H. Schmitt is a former United States Senator from New Mexico as well as a geologist and former Apollo 17 Astronaut. He currently is an aerospace and private enterprise consultant and a member of the new Committee of Correspondence
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, General Space Topic
I report on opportunities for the public to get involved with space exploration whenever I find them, and here’s the most recent.
If you’re a ham radio operator, you’ll be interested to know that NASA is asking for your help. This past November when the agency launched its Fast Affordable Scientific and Technology Satellite or FASTSAT, the NanoSail-D solar sail microsat stowed inside failed to deploy upon reaching orbit and was thought a loss until yesterday at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time when a “spontaneous” ejection was detected.
Unfortunately, no confirmation has yet been received that NanoSail-D is active, and this is where you come in. NASA reports that the beacon signal can be found at 437.270 MHz. They ask anyone detecting a signal at that frequency to report the findings to the NanoSail-D dashboard at http://nanosaild.engr.scu.edu/dashboard.htm.
Former Senator Schmitt Cites Strong Constitutional Justification for Selected Federally Funded Research
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, General Space Topic
The Founders understood the importance of science and technology in the long-term future of the United States. Without science and engineering advancement, in the face of advancement by others, America could not compete with our ideological and economic challengers. Imagine our world if, before America, Nazi Germany had atomic weapons or the former Soviet Union had nuclear submarines or reached the Moon.
The Founders demonstrated their understanding of the critical role of individual creativity in American progress by specifically delegating constitutional power to Congress “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8). The economic and personal incentives for Americans to invent and publish have grown from this remarkable clairvoyance.
The Founders did not intend for the “Science and useful Arts” Clause alone to give broad constitutional justification for federal funding of scientific and technology research. Clearly, the Founders only meant for this Clause to apply to the research activities by individuals. Federal protection of intellectual property by copyright and patent law flows from this constitutional power.
Scientific and technological advancement funded by the Federal Government has a strong constitutional foundation in the Preamble’s mandated promotion of the “common Defence and general Welfare.” Specifically, the Congress has enumerated powers in this regard in Article I, Section 8. Implementation of those powers logically requires federal involvement in science and engineering research, as follows:
* Clause 5 – fixing of “the Standard of Weights and Measures.”
* Clause 6 – detection and prevention “of counterfeiting.”
* Clause 7 – establishment and implied improvement of “post Roads” and, by logical extension, more modern means of delivering communications.
* Clause 8 – evaluation of “Discoveries” in “Science and the useful Arts” for the purpose of “securing…exclusive rights” for “Inventors.”
* Clause 12 and 13 – “support” of “Armies” and maintenance of “a Navy” and, by logical extension, future forces necessary to the “common Defence.”
* Clause 15 and 16 – support of the “Militia” and their use to “repel Invasions.”
Clause 18 of Section 8 further gives Congress the power “to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.” It should be noted by the added underlines that this Clause limits Congress to only the execution of the Government’s constitutionally enumerated powers.
Relative particularly to national security, clear Article I constitutional support therefore exists for federal sponsorship, directly or indirectly, of science and technology research that applies to the following:
* Weapons of all kinds that can effectively support the armed forces.
* Natural, agricultural, and other resources required for national security.
* Military logistics technologies and transportation systems, including national highways, waterways, rail systems, and aeronautics and space systems.
* Nationally critical energy systems and the basic sciences that underlie such systems.
* Potential future military technologies such as space and missile defense, external threat sensing, cyber attack, and so forth.
* National border protection and enforcement.
* Medical research applicable to the maintenance of a healthy population from which soldiers are drawn as required and to the treatment of wounded soldiers and veterans.
* Climate and weather as they impact the above.
Under Article II, the Executive also has enumerated powers that require support from science and engineering research but which require budgetary concurrence by the Congress and, of course, congressional approval of necessary levels of supporting taxation and debt. Article II, Section 2, Presidential powers include:
* Clause 1 – acting as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy…and of the Militia…when called into the actual Service of the United States…”
* Clause 2 – negotiating and making “Treaties” on which the Congress must provide “advice and consent.”
Also under Clause 2 of Article II, Section 2, Presidents have the power to appoint “…by and with Advice and Consent of the Senate…all other Officers of the United States…whose Appointments…shall be established by Law…” Any appointments with significant executive powers not submitted to the Senate for conformation, such as President Obama’s “czars” are clearly unconstitutional.
Although the Congress, under Article I, Section 8, Clause 18, can legislate both responsibilities and constraints on the execution of the President’s Article II power of Appointments, Article I limits Congress to its own enumerated powers. Constraining Congress even further, the Founders did not provide in Clause 18 for Congress to go beyond enumerated powers in defining the specific responsibilities of Presidential Appointments. Science and technology research necessary to support the authorized functions of Departments and Agencies, therefore, must adhere to the limits of the enumerated powers of Congress; that is, it would be unconstitutional for Presidential appointees to be given budgetary authority to undertake activities that Article I does not state as being within the power of Congress to authorize or fund.
How, then, can “Appointments” in the Executive be given clear authority to carry out their constitutional responsibilities? First of all, through the Oath of Office, the President gains significant latitude in directing some such officers to assist him to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This constitutional discretion expands further in the Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, designation of the President as “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into actual Service of the United States…” Departments such as Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice, as well as the Intelligence Agencies, can be managed directly by the President, but only within the bounds of the Bill of Rights and other Constitutional Amendments. In this, the President only needs Congressional concurrence on overall budgets.
Budget concurrence creates critical balance of power limitations on the President as Commander in Chief but cannot, constitutionally, be used to prevent Presidents or the Congress from providing for the “common Defence” in any significant way. Both entities share this mandated function. For not carrying out that mandate, Presidents can be impeached and Members of Congress can be removed in their next election cycle.
Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, further expands Presidential Executive power by stating “he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective offices…” This language indicates that the Founders expected Presidents to exercise significant control over the activities of all Executive Departments and, by extension, future Agencies that might be created by law.
The fact that the Constitution does not define the functions of any Executive Department, outside those implicit in enumerated powers, indicates an intent that this definition would be left to the interplay between the Congress and the Office of the President. The need for the Executive to deal with national defense and matters of state, treasury, commerce, law enforcement, and postal service derives from Articles I and II. The Founders, on the other hand, intentionally created what they hoped would be a balancing tension between the Executive and the Congress through Presidential executive power being moderated by Congress’ power over the purse and specifically limited legislative powers.
The President, with funding concurrence by the Congress, therefore has significant discretion in assigning science and technology research duties to federal Departments and Agencies so long as Congress can constitutionally fund their implementation. Development of weapons and intelligence gathering systems and systems that support the armed forces overall are obvious examples of the exercise of this constitutional discretion. Persuasive constitutional arguments also can be made for federal support of science and technology research in medicine, agriculture, energy, and natural resources based on the specific applicability to national security of research projects in these arenas. An increasingly healthy population and the obvious need for indigenous supplies of food, energy, and raw materials provide adequate justification for most of the research activities of related federal Departments. These arguments find strong support in history and in consideration of possible future national security threats and the need for improved and more diverse means of meeting those threats.
The Constitution, on the other hand, does not empower the Congress to provide funding for, nor can the President direct, research that does not have specific applicability to powers enumerated in Articles I or II. This fact calls into question the constitutionality of research on societal, economic, cultural, demographic, and educational issues that have no direct relationship to national security and that could be carried out through privately funded institutions, associations, cooperative State initiatives, and businesses rather than by government. The 10th Amendment provides for decisions on the conduct of such soft research to the people or the States.
Constitutional rationale for “big” science and technology projects that have costs, time commitments, and national security implications and lie beyond those addressable by the private sector alone lies in their tangible contributions to the implementation of the Article I powers of the Congress and the Article II powers of the President. Since the nation’s founding, federally supported or managed big science and engineering efforts have contributed to national defense or to treaty enforcement. Notably, such projects include canals, locks, dams, and levees beginning in the early 1800s; agricultural research through Land Grant academic institutions created in 1860s and 1890s; the Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1860s; construction of the Panama Canal at the turn of the 20th Century; aeronautical research that began early in the 1910s; continuously upgraded defense and reconnaissance systems since the 1940s; the Manhattan Project of the 1940s; development of a Nuclear Navy and related power systems, communication satellites, and the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s; and the Apollo Moon-landing Program of the 1960s.
Even though strong constitutional support exists for significant federal funding of science and engineering research, such support becomes fuzzy relative to big and small, pure science projects exploring the edges of our understanding of nature. Although difficult to quantify, their constitutional rationale lies primarily in the stimulation of educational initiatives that train the scientists and engineers that ultimately serve more direct constitutional functions, particularly national security.
Unfortunately, the once bright future for both federally and privately funded science and technology research has dimmed in the United States. Mismanagement of federal projects is endemic. A federal attack on private academic and research institutions has commenced through unconstitutional regulatory interference. Further, unless the next Congress and the next President contain and reduce the national debt and the cost and reach of both entitlements and unnecessary regulations, remaining taxpayers will have little money left to fund future research no matter how important and constitutional.
Harrison H. Schmitt is a former United States Senator from New Mexico as well as a geologist and Apollo Astronaut. He currently is an aerospace and private enterprise consultant and a member of the new Committee of Correspondence.
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, Commercial Space Flight
NASA announced late last week that they are seeking to buy data from commercial providers that, “reduces risks for future human and robotic lander designs by employing these missions as unique demonstration testbeds,” according to their Broad Agency Announcement. Through their Innovative Lunar Demonstrations Data (ILDD) program, the agency will award $30.1M to private companies already vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, itself valued at an additional $30M. With this latest incentive, private companies now stand to make over $60M for successfully landing on the moon.
This is great news for lead contender Astrobotic Technology (see The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN), a Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company devoted to robotic exploration of the Moon. They’re already well into the hardware testing phase of their lunar rover, set to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 late in 2012 bound for the Apollo 11 landing site. The mission, dubbed “Tranquility TrekTM,” will place a 160-lb, 5-foot-tall rover on the lunar surface for 10 to 12 days until lunar night fall. When the sun rises two Earth weeks later, the solar-powered robot will re-awaken to resume from its deep freeze hibernation after having experienced temperatures plummeting to -298 degrees Fahrenheit. This will be an important milestone for the technology since their plan is to follow on with additional robots to “prospect for the water ice and other volatiles at the Moon’s poles, which can be transformed into propellant to refuel spacecraft for return flights to Earth, doubling the productivity of human missions,” said Dr. William “Red” Whittaker, Astrobotic founder and director of CMU’s Field Robotics Center. There in the permanently-shadowed craters of the poles, robots must face the most bitter cold yet recorded in the solar system. This first demonstration flight will serve as a practice run for the deep freeze of the poles. And if these robots do well, they can serve as a first generation of a sort of space-based hunting dog to help in those tasks too dangerous for humans.
Still further, in an exclusive statement to SpaceTalkNOW, Dr. Whittaker said that his company also has plans to explore newly-discovered features on the Moon called “skylights,” (see A New Decade and Infinite Possibilities, January 11, 2010 STN; The Undiscovered Country, June 23, 2010 STN; and Lunar Scientists Need You, July 25, 2010 STN). These features are the collapsed ceilings of long-dead lava tubes, and they hold much promise as possible sources of lunar water as well as for natural shelter against the radiation environment.
This new NASA lunar program represents a giant leap forward in fostering lunar-based commerce around which the settlement of our nearest neighbor in space could arise. Like the COTS and CCDev commercial contracts before it, NASA will not use ILDD to take ownership of any flight or ground systems like was done during the Apollo program when the agency took full ownership of the Saturn rocket, Command Module and Lunar Lander and all their supporting technology. When Apollo died, those vehicles — so hard won — died with it. But this time, things are different. It’s a perfect example of NASA playing the role for which it is so well suited: that of macroeconomic enabler. The ILDD program’s money will spur innovation in the complimentary areas of human and robotic space flight, which is then reinvested to advance the state of the art still further. Private enterprise can then follow NASA to the moon and supply much of the agency’s needs for technology, materiel and logistical support. It’s a match made in heaven.
Once set in motion, lunar-based commerce can grow exponentially, making use of the nearly limitless, untapped natural resources to be found there not only for supplying the base there but for providing Earth with minerals such as Platinum (see Moonrush by Dennis Wingo, ISBN-13: 978-1894959100) which, though rare on Earth, is abundant on the Moon and could serve as a highly efficient catalyst for the first generation of hydrogen-powered, fuel cell automobiles.
Once a critical mass in space commerce is reached, it opens the door to the spread of space tourism, first from the short-duration, sub-orbital flights begun by Virgin Galactic to low earth orbit and then to the surface of the moon. The progression could be remarkably fast given the right set of circumstances. Already, Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace has plans for establishing the solar system’s first hotel on another planetary body. This can happen in our lifetime! All that is needed is the wise investment of both public and private funds. Uncle Sam and private industry can make great partners if they work together. Now the question is, do those in charge on either side recognize the potential? The NASA folks at the Constellation office from which ILDD will be funded obviously “get it.” But will Congress and the Administration pull the proverbial rug out from under them?
The results of the SpaceTalkNOW poll regarding Project Constellation are in. To the question “Should NASA’s Project Constellation to return humans to deep space be cancelled?” 84.9 percent of respondents said “no.” By a wide margin the people believe that we should return to the moon and deep space. So it would seem that on this issue, like so many others, the Administration is at odds with the folks.
Imagine if you will a scenario in which the powers that be announce that beginning next year, all airline flights will be cancelled. In their place, emphasis will shift to various, commercial entities for geting passengers from the parking lot to the terminal.
Hearing such a thing, you’d probably – and rightly – walk away scratching your head and conclude that those same powers lack a fundamental understanding of airlines and what they do. Of course, this is a silly notion and nothing more than a rather odd mental exercise. Right? Well, not really.
Time and time again since the Administration announced it’s desire to cancel NASA’s Constellation program for returning humans to the moon, we’ve heard the argument framed along various permutations of this statement: the Obama administration intends on cancelling Constellation and instead focus on the commercial sector for getting astronauts to the International Space Station.
All variations of that statement leave the listener wondering whether the Administration understands why Constellation exists and what it seeks to accomplish. The focus of the program is not getting people to low earth orbit. The function of the program is getting people into deep space – and more precisely, the moon!
The issue of transport to low earth orbit has become the prime focus for the debate over the future of Constellation. In short, rockets – sometimes called “boosters.” But once they’ve reach orbit, their job is done. Going any place else — which is presumable the whole point of having a human space program — requires altogether different vehicles. So when we fail to address the issues of deep space transport and landing craft, we’re completely missing the point. It is these vehicles, which are the real idea behind Constellation, and they are called Orion and Altair. Together, they are the most important components of the program. Take away either — but particularly Altair — and NASA is reduced to a multi-billion-dollar taxi service, destined only to watch others reach and settle the moon.
Forget Ares! Let’s talk about Altair.
Last week 20 Republican and 7 Democrat congressmen sent a letter (click here to read the full text) to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in which they expressed grave concerns over actions and comments taken by the agency with regard to the Constellation program.
The President, in his FY2011 budget, has proposed that Project Constellation be canceled. This proposed budget must now go before the Congress, and until such time as it is either accepted or rejected by that body, NASA is obligated to carry out the existing program. The letter, however, claims that NASA has already taken steps to dismantle it, stating that “We have become aware of the formation by NASA Headquarters of at least five ‘tiger teams,’ the job of which is to shut down Constellation and to transition to the new program.” The letter firmly asks the agency to “immediately cease all activity of the tiger teams.”
The letter also objects to NASA’s use of the phrase “set aside” when referring to FY2010 Constellation funds and clearly sets out to “remind” the Administrator that “setting aside funds may be a direct violation of the Impoundment Control Act (as well as of the appropriations language for FY10).” This Act was specifically created to prevent any president from undoing that which the Congress passed; in other words, from bypassing the will of the people.
The signatories of the letter also uncovered “disturbing reports of verbal instructions to Program Managers to begin the shutdown of Constellation programs” now, ahead of any decision by the Congress. Given that the Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY2010 expressly prohibits the termination of current programs, we’re left to wonder if this is an action born of ignorance or a deliberate attempt to circumvent Congress and dismantle Constellation to a point of no return where it would be too expensive to reactivate it.
How can these tactics be interpreted as anything other than conniving and underhanded? If the Administration is so confident that it has chosen the right path for the country, let it present its plan in the full light of day and allow the system to work. Pulling the pins out of Constellation to watch it fly apart at the seams into an irretrievable pile of rubble is callous and arrogant. Worse still, done unilaterally, it deprives the people of this country the right to choose for themselves.
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, Commercial Space Flight
The Obama Administration’s proposed cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program to take astronauts back to the moon and beyond has unleashed a firestorm of emotional debate. Scientists, astronauts, politicians, bloggers and the general public are all weighing in on this unexpected turnabout. If the Administration’s proposed 2011 budget is passed by the Congress, Constellation will be scrapped in favor of funding commercial providers taking astronauts to the International Space Station. The frontier of deep space will be abandoned.
Over the past year, SpaceTalkNOW has argued against NASA’s exclusivity in manned space flight and in favor of a symbiosis between civil and commercial sectors. That message remains unchanged. Private industry can and should take over low earth orbit, thereby leaving NASA to concentrate on deep space beginning with the moon. Obama’s proposed budget for 2011 gives a much-needed and overdue boost to commercial, human space flight, but it does not provide for balance. It makes a radical swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and leaves the country with no long-term goal. Instead of building a bridge to low earth orbit and the International Space Station from which we can launch into the rest of the solar system, the plan is building a bridge to no where. Low earth orbit is merely the foothold with which to propel us to our real destination: deep space. Yet the President’s plan would make it the destination.
What we’ve been presented with by pundits on both sides of the fallacious civil-versus-commercial human space flight argument is a false dichotomy: the assertion that it must be either one or the other when in fact a third option is available. And its an option that is almost painfully obvious.
Our goal as a nation should not be low earth orbit; it should be the frontier, which now begins at the moon. Exploration of our nearest neighbor in space and cultivating its rich and abundant set of natural resources will benefit all of mankind and create incalculable opportunities. That is a worthy goal for our national space program.
In support of that goal, the commercial sector should provide the necessary orbiting infrastructure including transport services, fuel delivery and storage, cargo delivery and warehousing, lodging and food service to name only a few.
It’s a simple concept: NASA serves as pathfinder, continuously pushing back the frontier, and the private sector follows behind, transforming each beachhead and supplying the needed materiel for the conquest of the next.
Some are arguing that the proposed budget supports human space flight to the frontier by creating more robotic, lunar precursor missions. But without the stated goal of sending people there, one can hardly argue that these are precursors at all. Without deep space as the stated and programatic goal of NASA, we’re left like the Spirit Mars Rover, spinning our wheels and going no where.
The President should reconsider his proposed budget. Leave in support for the private sector. Yes, increase spending for commercial crew, but also realize that it is not an either/or proposition. Civil and private sectors must work together, in tandem, and in support of deep space as our destination. Canceling Constellation removes the reason for a build up of commercial capability and makes about as much sense as funding a massive, new buggy whip industry.
AmericaSpace.org has posted a letter, which SpaceTalkNOW.org fully supports, to oppose President Obama’s proposed scrapping of NASA’s Project Constellation. Go to this link to download and send a copy to your congressman. This is an important issue, and if you agree that the US must keep its leadership in human space exploration, please take the time to send this letter and add your voice.
“One person can make a difference and every person should try.” - John F. Kennedy
by Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut
The Administration finally has announced its formal retreat on American Space Policy after a year of morale destroying clouds of uncertainty. The lengthy delay, the abandonment of human exploration, and the wimpy, un-American thrust of the proposed budget indicates that the Administration does not understand, or want to acknowledge, the essential role space plays in the future of the United States and liberty. This continuation of other apologies and retreats in the global arena would cede the Moon to China, the American Space Station to Russia, and assign liberty to the ages.
The repeated hypocrisy of this President continues to astound. His campaign promises endorsed what he now proposes to cancel. His July celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the first Moon landing now turns out to be just a photo op with the Apollo 11 crew. With one wave of a budget wand, the Congress, the NASA family, and the American people are asked to throw their sacrifices and achievements in space on the ash heap of history.
Expenditures of taxpayer provided funds on space related activities find constitutional justification in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, that gives Congress broad power to ”promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts.” In addition, the Article I power and obligation to “provide for the Common Defence” relates directly to the geopolitical importance of space exploration at this frontier of human endeavor. A space program not only builds wealth, economic vitality, and educational momentum through technology and discovery, but it also sets the modern geopolitical tone for the United States to engage friends and adversaries in the world. For example, in the 1980s, the dangerous leadership of the former Soviet Union believed America would be successful in creating a missile defense system because we succeeded in landing on the Moon and they had not. Dominance in space was one of the major factors leading to the end of the Cold War.
With a new Cold War looming before us, involving the global ambitions and geopolitical challenge of the national socialist regime in China, President George W. Bush put America back on a course to maintain space dominance. What became the Constellation Program comprised his January 14, 2004 vision of returning Americans and their partners to deep space by putting astronauts back on the Moon, going on to Mars, and ultimately venturing beyond. Unfortunately, like all Administrations since Eisenhower and Kennedy, the Bush Administration lost perspective about space. Inadequate budget proposals and lack of Congressional leadership and funding during Constellation’s formative years undercut Administrator Michael Griffin’s effort to implement the Program after 2004. Delays due to this under-funding have rippled through national space capabilities until we must retire the Space Shuttle without replacement access to space. Now, we must pay at least $50 million per seat for the Russians to ferry Americans and others to the International Space Station. How the mighty have fallen.
Not only did Constellation never receive the Administration’s promised funding, but the Bush Administration and Congress required NASA 1) to continue the construction of the International Space Station (badly under-budgeted by former NASA Administrator O’Keefe, the OMB, and ultimately by the Congress), 2) to accommodate numerous major over-runs in the science programs (largely protected from major revision or cancellation by narrow Congressional interests), 3) to manage the Agency without hire and fire authority (particularly devastating to the essential hiring of young engineers), and 4) to assimilate, through added delays, the redirection and inflation-related costs of several Continuing Resolutions. Instead of fixing this situation, the current Administration let go Administrator Griffin, the best engineering Administrator in NASA’s history, and now has cancelled Constellation. As a consequence, long-term access of American astronauts to space rests on the untested success of a plan for the “commercial” space launch sector to meet the increasingly risk adverse demands of space flight.
Histories of nations tell us that an aggressive program to return Americans permanently to deep space must form an essential component of national policy. Americans would find it unacceptable, as well as devastating to liberty, if we abandon leadership in space to the Chinese, Europe, or any other nation or group of nations. Potentially equally devastating to billions of people would be loss of freedom’s access to the energy resources of the Moon as fossil fuels diminish and populations and demand increase.
In that harsh light of history, it is frightening to contemplate the long-term, totally adverse consequences to the standing of the United States in modern civilization if the current Administration’s decision to abandon deep space holds. Even a commitment to maintain the International Space Station using commercial launch assets constitutes a dead-end for Americans in space. At some point, now set at the end of this decade, the $150 billion Station becomes a dead-end and would be abandoned to the Russians or just destroyed, ending America’s human space activities entirely.
What, then, should be the focus of national space policy in order to maintain leadership in deep space? Some propose that we concentrate only on Mars. Without the experience of returning to the Moon, however, we will not have the engineering, operational, or physiological insight for many decades to either fly to Mars or land there. Others suggest going to an asteroid. As important as diversion of an asteroid from collision with the Earth someday may be, just going there hardly stimulates “Science and the useful Arts” anything like a permanent American settlement on the Moon! Other means exist, robots and meteorites, for example, to obtain most or all of the scientific value from a human mission to an asteroid. In any event, returning to the Moon inherently creates capabilities for reaching asteroids to study or divert them, as the case may be.
Returning to the Moon and to deep space constitutes the right and continuing space policy choice for the Congress of the United States. It compares in significance to Jefferson’s dispatch of Lewis and Clark to explore the Louisiana Purchase. The lasting significance to American growth and survival of Jefferson’s decision cannot be questioned. Human exploration of space embodies the same basic instincts as the exploration of the West – the exercise of freedom, betterment of one’s conditions, and curiosity about nature. Such instincts lie at the very core of America’s unique and special society of immigrants.
Over the last 150,000 years or more, human exploration of Earth has yielded new homes, livelihoods, know how, and resources as well as improved standards of living and increased family security. Government has directly and indirectly played a role in encouraging exploration efforts. Private groups and individuals take additional initiatives to explore newly discovered or newly accessible lands and seas. Based on their specific historical experience, Americans can expect benefits comparable to those sought and won in the past also will flow from their return to the Moon, future exploration of Mars, and the long reach beyond. To realize such benefits, however, Americans must continue as the leader of human activities in space. No one else will hand them to us. Other than buying our national debt, China does not believe in welfare for the U.S.
With a permanent resumption of the exploration of deep space, one thing is certain: our efforts will be as significant as those of our ancestors as they migrated out of Africa and into a global habitat. Further, a permanent human presence away from Earth provides another opportunity for the expansion of free institutions, with all their attendant rewards, as humans face new situations and new individual and societal challenges.
Returning to the Moon first and as soon as possible meets the requirements for an American space policy that maintains deep space leadership, as well as providing major new scientific returns. Properly conceived and implemented, returning to the Moon prepares the way to go to and land on Mars. This also can provide a policy in which freedom-loving peoples throughout the world can participate as active partners.
The Congressionally approved Constellation Program, properly funded, contains most of the technical elements necessary to implement a policy of deep space leadership, particularly because it includes development of a heavy lift launch vehicle, the Ares V. In addition, Constellation includes a large upper stage for transfer to the Moon and other destinations, two well conceived spacecraft for transport and landing of crews on the lunar surface, strong concepts for exploration and lunar surface systems, and enthusiastic engineers and managers to make it happen if adequately supported. The one major missing component of a coherent and sustaining deep space systems architecture may be a well-developed concept for in-space refueling of spacecraft and upper rockets stages. The experience base for developing in-space refueling capabilities clearly exists.
Again, if we abandon leadership in deep space to any other nation or group of nations, particularly a non-democratic regime, the ability for the United States and its allies to protect themselves and liberty will be at great risk and potentially impossible. To others would accrue the benefits – psychological, political, economic, and scientific – that the United States harvested as a consequence of Apollo’s success 40 years ago. This lesson has not been lost on our ideological and economic competitors.
American leadership absent from space? Is this the future we wish for our progeny? I think not. Again, the 2010 elections offer the way to get back on the right track.
Aerospace experts are telling congress that NASA cannot achieve its goals in space with the current funding plan, but is the agency being asked to do too much? Has the time come to narrow its scope to increase its effectiveness at meeting the aggressive exploration goals placed on it?
Since its inception the US civil space program has accomplished many great things, which are arguably on par with the great exploration endeavors of the past: Magellan, Christopher Columbus, Ponce DeLeon and Lewis and Clark. But imagine if, along with all the other financial and logistical concerns they bore, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were also to have been responsible for factoring in provisions and money for the continuance of all the beachheads that had been established to that point in the young republic. Of course the notion is absurd, but could that be precisely what we’re doing with our space program? Could we be imposing continuance of the space-age equivalent of a beachhead secured long ago? And in doing so, doesn’t that dilute the agency’s strength and effectiveness?
The beachhead I’m referring to is called Geospace. It’s a region that spans the radiation environment from the Sun to Earth’s upper atmosphere — considered to be the fourth physical geosphere after solid earth, oceans, and atmosphere. I know; kind of a mouth full, but the importance of the latter will be made clear in a moment.
The mission to Geospace is a mature one. So much so that it has entered the realm of regular operations. So it may be no less absurd a notion to ask that NASA continue its presence in that region than it would have been to include the Lewis and Clark expedition as part of the same funding and administration blueprint used to explore the Boston or New York Harbors. At the very least, our capacity for space exploration has reached a level or maturity for which prudence would dictate a re-examination of how we structure our programs and agencies. Streamlining, even redefining scope and purpose may be a reasonable and warranted course.
Look at what NASA was able to achieve in the 1960′s and early 1970′s when the bulk of its resources and talent were aimed at the frontier. Were the stunning successes of that era due entirely to a much larger budget, or was it more a matter of focus? It’s a proven fact that individuals achieve more when there are fewer distractions. Is it inconceivable that the same process is at work at the organizational level?
If the mission of NASA were to be refined with a focus on Constellation, the program for going back to the moon then on to Mars, the resulting organization with its resources and funding redistributed and streamlined could achieve far more. But does this mean that other programs not in line with that goal are simply dropped? Certainly not.
Let’s go back to the missions to Geospace. Those should be placed under an agency for which this is already its mandate: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In the words of its new Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s reach, “goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor…” Sound familiar? If you said the Geosphere, you’re right.
So it is no stretch at all to reassign every mission looking at the sun or the earth to NOAA. Indeed, NOAA is already performing that mission with its constellation of GOES satellites. More than just weather observation platforms, these spacecraft monitor the sun, the earth and the interplanetary space between. Geospace is already within their mission statement. And they fly these missions with their own cadre of world-class scientists, engineers and controllers. To reassign all remaining programs currently under NASA studying the earth and the sun to NOAA is not only technically feasible and fits within the current political structure, but it would also eliminate much redundancy and coordination between the two agencies due to the overlap in missions, thereby saving money. Those cost savings can then go to fund programs turning out tangible results rather than wasting them on dispensable layers of bureaucracy.
But there’s another facet of NOAA that lends still more credence to the argument for its dominion over Geospace: their space arm is inherently an operational institution. This stands in contrast to NASA, whose bailiwick lies purely within the domain of research and development. And the question of operations vs R&D is quickly becoming an issue with the International Space Station. Construction of the ISS is nearing completion, after which NASA will find itself in a position for which it has no experience: that of landlord, where operations — not R&D — are the prime concern.
So why not place Geospace strictly under NOAA and leave NASA to what it does best? deep space exploration of the frontier. Sometimes the best way forward is to take a step back.
Filed under: Civil Space Flight, Commercial Space Flight
On July 31, 1999 the NASA-built Lunar Prospector spacecraft crashed into a crater near the south pole of the moon.
Just over 7 years later on September 3, 2006 the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 crashed into Lacus Excellentiae (Latin for Lake of Excellence) in the moon’s southern region.
On November 14, 2008 an Indian-built spacecraft called Chandraayan 1 dropped a piece of itself, which impacted near Shackleton crater (named after Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, noted Antarctic explorer of the early 20th century) at the lunar south pole.
This past June 10th, the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) crashed its Selene spacecraft (nicknamed Kaguya) into the moon.
Are you beginning to detect a rather disturbing trend, here?
And last week, two more NASA probes, the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter (LRO) and the Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), were dispatched to the moon, also to be crashed into it… intentionally!
Either the world’s space scientists have a really warped sense of humor, or there’s a sane, rational reason for all these perfectly good, multi-million-dollar space probes being slammed into the lunar surface. And as it turns out, there is a good reason after all.
President Bush united the country (arguably, setting the tone for the rest of the world) under a single, unified goal in space for the first time since the 1960′s: the Vision for Space Exploration. Under VSE we’ll first return to the moon then go on to Mars — with all due respect to some of my colleagues who would prefer it in the reverse order. Though I hold them in very high regard, even share their love of Mars and the idea of establishing a colony there, the moon is a far better choice at this point in time. Over and above the more publicized reasons for going back to the moon such as for natural resources and using it as a staging area for Mars flights, missions to our nearest neighbor in space will more readily and rapidly aid in establishing space commerce, which I deeply believe is the more exigent.
Our first colony on another world will be a feat of engineering and logistics, rivaling the great westward push through the US of the 1800′s, and not only for the courage that will be required of the people who make the journey but the extreme economic hurtles that must be made. In the old west, settlers took the tools they needed to work the land, a few livestock if they were fortunate and not much else. They lived off the land, bodies of water and the wildlife they discovered. Space settlers, on the other hand, must take everything, even the air they breathe, and the cost of transporting every extra pound of cargo adds up quickly in added fuel spent. For this reason, such a settlement must be self-sustaining to the greatest extent possible. But the moon is a harsh homestead, providing only for the more industrious individual. If we could find water there, we would in one fell swoop solve some of the more daunting problems of space habitation.
Not only does water provide for drinking, bathing, cooking and cleaning, but it is an ideal solvent, a catalyst for building materials like concrete, and when you apply to that good ole H2O the process of electrolysis, can be split into its basic components: hydrogen and — yes, you guessed it — oxygen for breathing.
And so it is that we’ve embarked on a quest to find water on the moon. But wait. What does that have to do with crashing spacecraft?
There are two choices available to us for finding that clear, and so far painfully elusive, substance. Either we send people en masse to hack away at the surface with an assortment of machines dedicated to the task or we try an intelligent and far more cost-effective approach. It turns out that when you slam an object into the moon at the kinds of speeds one must achieve for space flight, the resultant release of energy is quite impressive; more than enough to kick up a very sizable plume of material from the impact site. And if you have an instrument capable of detecting water (ice or vapor) in that plume… vuala! You have your detection method. In the past, instruments have been trained on such a plume from a distance, a method called remote sensing. But LCROSS launched last week will be employing another, ingenious technique. It’s called an in situ (Latin for “in the place”) measurement. Here’s how it will work.
Two spacecraft, a rocket called a Centaur and a “shepherding spacecraft”, fly connected to the moon. Actually, the LRO spacecraft is also connected, but it will not meet the same fate. The Centaur is aimed at the moon (and we’ll get to how we pick the impact site in a minute), guided by the shepherding spacecraft. Before impact, the two separate. The Centaur traveling at 5600 miles per hour reaches the impact site first, selected for this task because of its high mass, weighing in at approximately 34,000 pounds — heavier than a bus. On impact, it excavates material from the resulting 100-foot-diameter crater and ejects it 30 miles up! Meanwhile, the shepherd, descending along the same path, is flying through the plume, continuously taking measurements and sending them back to earth until its own demise. If there is any water in any form on that spot, it will be detected.
OK, so you have your method for detection. Though it’s true the moon is much smaller than the earth, it’s still a prodigious expanse and wilderness. How do you narrow your search area? One fact that helps with this task is that the moon has no atmosphere.
On earth, our atmosphere protects us from the sun’s immense heat. It acts as a filter, allowing no more energy to reach the service than we need. Were it not for this filter, the sun would boil off our oceans. Back on the moon, this is precisely what happens to any water ice exposed to the sun’s rays. With no atmosphere there to reduce solar radiation, the ice heats up and boils away into space.
Knowing this, you might be tempted to throw in the towel, thinking that the whole of the moon is exposed to the sun and therefore couldn’t possibly contain any water ice. Luckily, there are some regions that lie in permanent shadow. At no point throughout the lunar year does the sun penetrate. Where might these places be, you ask? Well, I imagine you’ve already gleaned part of the answer from the fact that all the probes mentioned at the top of this article were being crashed into the moon’s southern regions.
It is estimated that both the north and south polar regions contain craters that lie in permanent shadow, so it is there where we will target impacting missions. Finding water on the moon will be like discovering a lush oasis in the middle of the desert. That one resource could sustain a permanent lunar colony from which commerce could grow, bringing about a new and prosperous economy. A bit much to expect, you say? Perhaps, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion it may not take that long to find out.