Friday, October 26, 2012

Man in Space

Click the arrow to watch the January 28, 2004 Senate Science Committee hearing chaired by Senator John McCain.

Senator John McCain told a Space Coast rally on October 24 that NASA should focus on a human mission to Mars.

McCain said NASA again needs to concentrate on a single project the American people can rally behind. “Let’s focus on putting a man or a woman on Mars. Let’s focus on that,” he said.

I found this odd, because McCain was one of the first critics of President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, which came to be known as Constellation.

Two weeks after the VSE speech, McCain chaired a Senate Science Committee hearing where NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe presented the details of the President's proposal. Here's what McCain said in the opening remarks:

I'm very curious to hear how Administrator O'Keefe thinks we can implement the President's proposal with the very limited resources that have been proposed. Two days go, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the deficit in Fiscal Year 2004 would reach $477 billion. It's been reported that the President's new proposal could cost between $170 billion and $600 billion. Needless to say, the $12 billion that the Adminstration has suggested be spent over the next five years falls far far short of what might actually be required to return to the Moon and reach for Mars and beyond.

Eight years later, in an era of trillion-dollar annual deficits, McCain calls for sending a person to Mars but doesn't talk about how to pay for it. A human Mars flight would cost a lot more than a return to the Moon.

Pandering and hypocrisy are nothing new during an election, but McCain's throwaway line for his Space Coast audience got me to thinking about a more fundamental question.

Why should we send a person to Mars?

Or anywhere else, for that matter.

For the generation that came of age in the 1960s, their space exploration paradigm has always been based upon sending a person to a destination. They recall President John F. Kennedy's proposal to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

But they don't recall why.

Nothing in the National Aeronautics and Space Act requires NASA to send people into space, to explore other worlds, or even to own its rockets.

All that changed with Kennedy's 1961 speech, although the Act itself was never amended to reflect his change of priorities.

Kennedy wasn't an explorer. In fact, he told NASA Administrator James Webb in November 1962, "I'm not that interested in space." Kennedy wanted to show the world that the United States had technology superior to the Soviet Union.

It's an outdated paradigm in today's world where the United States and Russia have been partners in space for 20 years.

Some claim that China poses a space threat, that they will conquer the Moon, but there is no evidence to substantiate such reckless claims. Chinese human spaceflight is based on 1980s-era Soviet Soyuz technology. They've demonstrated no technology capable of long-duration spaceflight in low Earth orbit, much less a trip to the Moon.

But members of Congress, and those who want to be, continue to use the 1960s paradigm as their vision for a government space program.

They recall the mythology but not the cost. In today's dollars, the NASA budget in the mid-1960s was about $35 billion per year. Today it's half of that, and that's in an era of trillion-dollar annual deficits. It's estimated that the Apollo program cost about $150 billion in today's dollars.

Can you imagine any politician seriously arguing that the U.S. spend $150 billion today for a publicity stunt?

Politicians love to say, "Let's go to the Moon," or to an asteroid, or to Mars, but no one ever seems to admit the true cost. Sound bites are always free. Human spaceflight programs are not.

As recently demonstrated by the Mars Science Laboratory aboard the Curiosity rover, the U.S. is quite capable of exploring other worlds using robotic devices. It's far cheaper and safer than sending a person.

The NewSpace generation is operating from a different paradigm.

Visionaries such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Greason and Bob Bigelow understand that the key to a permanent human presence in space requires bringing down the cost for access to low Earth orbit.

They all rely to varying degrees on NASA research, development and experience. That was the original intent of the National Aeronautics and Space Act.

Some complain about NASA's declining percentage of the federal budget. What they overlook is that, if you combine both federal and private space spending, the U.S. is spending more money on human spaceflight than any time since the 1960s.

The Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitats have three times the volume of an International Space Station module.

What makes more sense — spending a trillion dollars so a person can walk on Mars, or investing a small fraction of that on creating a new economy in low Earth orbit so that humans can routinely access space by the end of this decade? Many of those may be for a few minutes on an adventure tourism spaceflight with Virgin Galactic or XCOR. But those will be people who will be inspired by space exploration because they did it themselves, not because a few surrogates went all the way to Mars so we can watch it in TV.

Boeing and SpaceX have partnered with Bigelow to seek customers who want to lease Bigelow's inflatable habitats. A recent NASA report documented that more than 800 patents have been issued since 1981 based on microgravity research aboard the Space Shuttle or the International Space Station. Almost 600 more await approval with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Low Earth orbit will be the location of the next Gold Rush. The gold will be microgravity.

If you want people exploring space, nothing drives exploration like a profit motive.

My personal opinion is that humans are destined to expand into the solar system. It's inevitable. And that's why we need to do a lot more research into how microgravity affects the human body. How to shield humans from radiation in space and on other worlds. How to develop new propulsion systems that reduce travel time.

None of that is achieved by a political stunt.

But it will be achieved once our elected officials realize that NASA needs to go back to its roots, to invest in research and cutting-edge technology so that our great economic engine can do what it does best.

Mars can wait.

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