Manned Mission To An Asteroid: Eureka Moment Or Dead End?

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.

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