I sit here in my room, watching the space shuttle Atlantis roll so gracefully slowly towards the great Launch pad 39A (the Launch pad that took Humans to the moon in 1969), for her 32nd and final flight to space, and I get a feeling of sadness running though me. This sadness has a mix of feelings in it. It is sad to see such a great program end. Six months ago, this sadness would have been bitter sweet because I knew that the space program was headed to bigger and better things. While it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Constellation was underfunded and over budget, we knew the destination: The Moon. We knew how we were going to achieve it: Ares V and EDS with an Altair Lunar Lander. We knew what was going to happen after that: Armstrong Lunar Outpost by 2024. With current funding, we all knew that Constellation would not meet the goal of returning to the Moon by 2020.
Then in February, Constellation was proposed to be cancelled. My bitter sweet emotion towards shuttle retirement turned mostly bitter. What was going to replace constellation? What about the Moon? What about learning how to live on another world for extended periods of time? If we weren’t going to go beyond LEO, what was the point of killing such an amazing reusable space plane?
I loved the proposal to fund NewSpace companies. I think the COTS program was one of the best uses of 500 million dollars that the government has probably ever spent. Using the same process, we can get a few different options of manned space capsules to LEO. SpaceX is clearly the frontrunner in this “race.” I did not, however, like the idea that the budget didn’t give any destinations with timelines.
After a lot of confusion and outrage, President Obama spoke to a gathering of his supporters that didn’t really have any NASA employees there (from what I here), and set a loose goal of designing a Heavy lift by 2015, going to an asteroid by 2025, and then Mars by the mid to late 30’s. We got destinations with Simi-deadlines.
I think we can do a lot better than that. Why do we have to wait till 2015 before we even begin to build and test an HLV when we have a perfectly good basic design with the Ares V. We have already begun testing of various pieces of that vehicle, most notably that five segment SRB. Why just scrap it? If you want to modify little things, change it to a side mount, or what not, fine, but why not use it? It retains a number of space shuttle jobs, with SRB use, and ET production. We can probably modify the now vacant Ares 1 Mobile Launch Platform with its launch tower to use for the Ares V. If cost is your overall issue, that’s fine. Why not use it for our future exploration beyond LEO, and once Private industry proves itself in LEO, say by the late decade, then make another COTS like competition for a low cost reusable HLV?
In my last blog post, I talked about a phased Apollo era type mission to Mars. Our modern Mercury program being the ISS, a new Gemini program would be a NEO program, and then the grand program of Mars Exploration would begin.
So, I say, instead of 2015 to “finalize a design,” we make 2015 the deadline to FLY a design! In the meantime, NASA can use the ISS to develop technologies such as VASIMR or advanced life support systems to fly to further destinations.
Once the HLV is finished, use it to test the new technologies developed at ISS. Fly a mission using VASIMR to the Earth-Moon L2 point, or Earth-Sun L2 before attempting flying beyond to an asteroid, maybe Apophis. These missions could be conducted between 2015 and 2018, seven to ten years before the President’s deadline.
Planning missions this close together keeps the public interested as well. When Kennedy made his announcement to put humans on the moon by 1969, NASA had a lot of work to do, and did a mission nearly every few months. This kept the public excited. If a long term program, like a Mars, or Asteroid program is ever going to succeed, this needs to happen, and it is easier than ever in today’s world of social media sites, like twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
While we are practicing manned deep space missions in the mid to late part of this decade, JPL can be given funding to ramp up its Mars exploration program. Send the Curiosity rover to mars in 2011, and send a couple more in 2013 and 2015 to explore more of mars. Then pick a place to send a sample return in 2018. This sample return would not be about the samples as much as it would be to test landing a multi-ton spacecraft on the surface of mars. Then, using In-situ Resource Utilization we can test and prove that a spacecraft can land with empty tanks on Mars, and use the atmosphere to refill them to go home. In 2020 or 2022 we can send an unmanned Earth Return Vehicle to Mars to wait for a crew to use it. In 2022 or 2024, people, using the HLV design used for the asteroid missions, would go to Mars for the first time, over TEN years before the Presidents deadline.
We can then spend the next ten years expanding the base on Mars to support six to twelve international representatives. Once NewSpace becomes experienced via the ISS COTS program, and a program for NewSpace to develop an HLV is successful, then NASA can begin outsourcing cargo and crew transfers from Earth to Mars to the private industry in the 30’s.
This would be worth spending a hundred or more billion dollars on manned spaceflight over the next 10 years. Anything less than something this aggressive, in my opinion, would be a waste of tax payer dollars. NASA’s job is to explore space, and if it’s possible for private industry to step in, NASA should stand down, and move on to another destination. There will come a time when NASA is no longer needed, that day may come sooner, rather than later. I can see a time in 50 to 100 years, when NASA is just another unnecessary government bureaucracy, but right now, they are still an integral part of humanities quest to expand into the solar system, and they should be doing that, expanding our boundaries.
We are so close to leaving LEO, yet, because of the lack of the political will to fund a bold program during a politicians short term, we have shortsightedness, delays and diversions. Once given the Go-funding, NASA should design, build, and test fly an HLV by 2015 to replace the space shuttle (in a heavy lift sense), or they will face yet another directional change delaying even longer a return to beyond LEO exploration.