Saturday, April 17, 2010

Another New NASA Space Plan - Fantasy or Reality?

"Distant Shores" by Pat Rawlings  NASA/JSC   
The President has come forth with his plan for NASA. This is not a surprise, since presidents are always coming forward with a plan for NASA. Every administration finds a need to do this; to put forth their personal vision for American space exploration. NASA is a high visibility agency, with a reasonably good reputation. It has lost some face with the general public in the last fifteen years or so, but it is still one of the more favorably viewed of the agencies that come under ".gov" on the internet. A president who can create a workable, exciting plan for NASA creates a vast deal of good sentiment for his/her administration.

I will admit my biases up front:  that I very much want NASA to succeed in its endeavors, that I very much want this particular President to succeed, and that I want NASA to support basic research, not just human space flight. And so my little review of his plan, here, is going to be influenced by that. I'll also point out that this, as with most of my other posts, is an opinion piece - I am not a specialist in federal budgets and the like. Nor do I specialize in technology. But as with many in my field, I've worked with NASA for years doing research and education, and so I can't resist the temptation to post about this new plan.

Summarized, in a nutshell, from a news release on the Planetary Society page:

In his speech at Kennedy Space Center, President Obama clearly laid out his goals and a timetable for NASA:

  • By 2015 – Finalize a heavy-lift launcher design and begin to build it.  This would give us a deep-space rocket years earlier than estimated under Constellation.  The President has allocated $3 billion to do the work.
  • By 2025 – Begin the first crewed missions beyond the Moon and into deep space.  The final choice of destination is not immediately made, but will depend on technology advances.  A near-Earth asteroid is a possible choice, with increasingly demanding targets to follow.
  • By mid-2030s – Send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.
  • During the President's lifetime, people will land on Mars.

Ambitious, very ambitious. I have to say I am skeptical, but still optimistic. One of the reasons for that is because even if this plan does not reach full fruition, it has appropriate intermediate steps that will produce some good technology and some good science.

We do indeed need to develop the technology for a heavy rocket. The U.S. does not have a heavy rocket - at all.  In fact, rocket technology has fallen a bit by the wayside. (A fine allegory for which was an old Saturn V rocket laying by NASA Road 1 in Clearlake, Texas, rusting away.) But can we build a new rocket for $3 billion?  I don't think so. My prediction is that this will cost more, and run out at least another five years.

Choosing asteroids as intermediate landing targets seems wise for a number of reasons. We'd like to know more about asteroids anyway from an impact hazard point of view. Low gravity means easier landings and liftoffs. But they will not make perfect analogs to a planetary surface landing, nor for "living" on the surface. We really need the Moon for that.

As far as crewed missions beyond the Moon, that is tricky. The Moon is only three days away, Mars is months away. I believe the major hurdle is keeping the crew protected from radiation all that time. Right now, we don't have a good shield. Well, lead is a good shield, but a bit heavy to launch into space. There is no predicting if this will happen on schedule or not, since you can't predict technology advances that require ideas people haven't come up with yet.

In the mean time, with all of this happening, will NASA be able to keep its commitment to research science? Without basic research, the rest of NASA's program falls apart. We can't afford to become myopic, and focus so tightly on Mars that we let the scaffolding for exploration collapse. That scaffolding is built by the individual research projects that use spacecraft data to figure out what is actually out there. We can't send people anywhere if we don't know the characteristics of the target. And we can't create a new dream for exploration if we are not always pushing the boundaries with new robotic missions, new telescopes, and by continuing to fund the research using those data.

Will we see people on Mars in the lifetime of the current President? I think the answer is yes, IF the plan actually gets funded, and stays funded. The frustration of NASA is that it is in the executive branch of the government, so directly under the finger of the president. When a new one comes in, the old plan goes out. Progress made towards that plan is not necessarily lost, but might become irrelevant. Bush's plan is out, which is fine by me, but the emphasis on lunar work has already been partially funded.  It will be a shame to see the plug pulled on any of that.

Still, I'd get behind almost any realistic plan at this point, if I thought Congress would stay behind it, too. I'm afraid I've become a bit jaded, with plans for people on Mars coming and going since long before I was born. In fact, I was so certain as a kid that I was the perfect age to be in the crew to go to Mars. And now, like so many others, I'm just hoping to live to see someone else do it.

And they wonder why we write fiction ...


Image Credit:  "Distant Shores" by Pat Rawlings via NASA/JSC Program Art


Andy said...

I am interested to see the reactions in the science community. I noted that Obama said we wouldn't return to the Moon "first", which implied to me that returning to the Moon wasn't a necessary step on going to Mars. The lunar community is pretty unhappy, which is to be expected, but I can't imagine we're _never_ returning to the Moon. And, in fact, it seems like this allows a return to the Moon while removing any aspect of a race with the Chinese, which is a race we may very well lose.

Bryce Ellicott said...

Andy - I agree. I think leaving the Moon out of the plan, as stated, is entirely political. As you say, it distances us from any possible lunar space race (which is strange anyway, since we've already been to the Moon.) But it also makes this plan appear very different from Bush's 'vision for space exploration.' Yet it does have many similarities. As with you, I expect to hear a backlash from the lunar community. We will have to wait and see what this new plan actually means for funded activities, like the Lunar Institutes. You know my bias towards lunar science, so I am hoping that while these activities were de-emphasized for political reasons, in reality they will still continue as a necessary part of our overall space program.

Andy said...

I don't see how we would bypass the Moon, really. NASA would either have to decide it didn't need to test things like habitats or resource utilization or new and improved rovers or sample collection techniques (or whatever) before using them on Mars, or they'll go to the Moon for practice. I'd bet they have at least one lunar mission, but I could certainly be wrong. :)