The Space Movement
Since winning the Space Race, NASA has been adrift. The United States has lacked a clear goal for our civil space program, making it impossible to formulate a strategy to guide the agency and get the U.S. back into space for good.
Before discussing strategy, let us define some terms. A goal is a broad, desired outcome. Strategies are the approaches that can lead us to the goal. Objectives are measurable steps to execute a strategy. Tactics are the physical tools we will use and the details of how we will use them to meet the objectives.
The Space Race was an excellent example of letting goals drive strategy, strategy drive objectives, and objectives drive tactics. The goal was to demonstrate to the world the superiority of the U.S. over the U.S.S.R., using space as the competitive arena.
Our strategy was to select a very ambitious objective that we could reach before the Russians and publicly display our pursuit of that goal, dramatized as a race.
Our objective, as defined by President Kennedy, was to "land a man on the Moon before this decade is out and return him safely to the Earth" — clear, simple, and measurable.
Our tactics included the selection of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, the Saturn and Apollo systems, and the Gemini program as stepping stones to allow the maturation of the technologies we needed to reach the Moon.
The last two Presidential administrations have reached for a new goal for the U.S. civil space program — and in my view, they have found it. Whether it was President Bush's science advisor John Marburger saying that the Vision for Space Exploration was about "incorporating the solar system within the economic sphere of humanity," or President Obama stating that "Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth … ultimately in ways that are … indefinite," a common thread is clear: The U.S. goal for our civil spaceflight efforts is, in essence, human settlement.
Circles that determine U.S. space policy recognize this goal, but their articulation has been timid and their execution lacking, because they lack faith that we can achieve it given the resources available. I believe that we can achieve the goal of settlement — and I will lay out one possible strategy to provide an example of how this can be done.
Building a New Settlement Strategy.
First we must realize that the budget for U.S. civil spaceflight will not grow and may decline slightly, given the budgetary challenges facing the federal government. Yet if off-planet settlement is successful, the human population off the Earth will grow over time. These twin realities must drive our strategy — for the population to grow under a fixed budget, the cost per human being living and working off the Earth must keep shrinking.
Many policy-makers have advocated pursuing an Apollo-like strategy — an all-out effort to begin or resume human expeditions to the Moon, near Earth objects (NEOs), or Mars. Conducting such expeditions successfully using an Apollo-like approach would consume at least the entire available budget, leaving no margin to take the next steps without dismantling the infrastructure we created. As a result, we would have to cancel further expeditions before taking steps towards sustainable settlement. Repeating Apollo, whether on the Moon, Mars, or NEOs will not achieve our goal.
Others suggest that we develop a base in one location as the sole focus of our efforts, but without a compelling market or purpose for such a base, private funding to expand our activities won't materialize, the per person cost won't decline, and settlement is unlikely to follow. Creating another International Space Station or replicating the South Pole Station on another planet, however interesting, will not achieve our goal.
To shrink the U.S. taxpayer support required per settler, more and more of the cost of maintaining the transportation systems, resource extraction, processing (e.g., extracting water from the Moon's lunar poles for sustainment of life and propellants for deeper space missions), and other required services must be borne by the private sector. Demonstrably, this hasn't happened yet. Examining the reason why — insufficient market volume — points the way forward.
For private capabilities to emerge, the U.S. government must focus its limited taxpayer resources on developing infrastructure and critical technologies, and stimulating markets by serving as an anchor tenant. There has been some discussion around this, but neither Congress nor the executive branch has articulated how this effort will lead to settlement. In the absence of a strategy, NASA efforts have focused on merely preserving the government activities traditional in the past.
We have not yet agreed on what we will need in the future.
One possible strategy that I call "planet-hopping" uses an aggressive human exploration program as the anchor tenant for an ever-expanding network of propellant supply depots and in-situ propellant-production facilities. In the course of executing this strategy, we would take each planetary destination in sequence, building up facilities and capabilities as we go. We would transition each new capability to private sector operation as quickly as possible, freeing the taxpayer from the need to constantly expand their support as the off-planet human population rises.
We would begin by caching propellant in Earth orbit, supplied by the lowest cost launchers available. As with the Air Mail Act of 1925, which caused the U.S. government to contract with private carriers and stimulate demand for air transportation instead of developing a government-operated network, this approach boosts the demand for commercial space launches. Further, as propellant can be carried by any type of launch vehicle, a wide variety of companies and launch technologies can compete. A robust exploration program using this approach would roughly triple the U.S. launch market and solve at a stroke our many problems caused by small and unpredictable markets.
The second step would be a cislunar depot — initially filled from terrestrial supplies, and later from lunar supplies. A lunar polarmining outpost would follow — largely teleoperated from Earth but with sufficient human presence to maintain the machines. Its purpose would be neither science nor national prestige; it would manufacture and export propellant. Once established, both industrial and scientific users, piggybacking on that infrastructure, would find many other uses for the Moon. With propellant available at the lunar surface, reusable spacecraft could provide transportation to and from the cislunar depot.
The third step would be to expand such activities to a Martian moon, Phobos or Deimos. Before undertaking such a mission, we'll need to pave the way with shorter demonstration missions to NEOs and long-term cosmic radiation protection experiments at our cislunar and lunar facilities — much as Gemini paved the way for Apollo. These steps have been denigrated by some industry pundits as dead ends precisely because the U.S. government has failed to articulate a strategy. In fact, as part of such a strategy, they are steps forward.
Then, human beings would reach Phobos or Deimos and replicate the establishment of a radiation-shielded base and manufacture propellant from in-situ resources. With human beings in Mars orbit to teleoperate robotic probes and collect samples from multiple locations, this would be a scientific bonanza eclipsing Apollo. But we would press on, using teleoperated robots to set up propellant manufacture and human habitats on the Martian surface. With propellant available on the surface and in orbit around Mars, current-technology chemical rockets could make the trip back and forth between Phobos or Deimos and Mars.
At each step, as propellant becomes available further and further away from Earth, the cost of human missions to more distant destinations shrinks. Further, as the cost drops and supply increases, demand increases, creating jobs for more off-planet workers. Even with constant NASA budgets, a strategy like this could be executed successfully with the right partnerships between government and commercial sectors. Over time, I believe that if the infrastructure exists and operating costs are low, other traffic will grow to the point where government support will not be necessary, allowing taxpayer support to shift to the next step in the strategy.
Rather than being adversaries, the government and commercial sectors must cooperate, each in its own sphere, to achieve our national goals.
By no means am I suggesting this is the only workable approach; it is but one possible strategy for achieving space settlement and providing clear direction to our civil space program.
Whether you agree or disagree with this way forward, some strategy must be found. Attempts to justify our civil human space program on lesser goals than settlement have fallen short time and again. Transforming NASA is understandably frightening to many. Unfortunately, the alternative is for NASA's budget to be chipped away until it can no longer achieve any useful mission. Failure to develop a space strategy tied to national goals will lead to NASA's budget shrinking as fast or faster than non-defense discretionary spending.
If NASA cannot show U.S. taxpayers good value, NASA will fail. Those who are fighting against the long-overdue realignment of NASA's goals away from the Space Race of the 1960s are risking loss of all support for a government-funded human spaceflight effort — which I would view as a tragedy.