Spacefaring (2): Paths to Realization

By Richard Mains, Posted 08/21/09

Habot (habitat + robot),SpaceRef

"Habot (habitat + robot)" Source: SpaceRef

I didn't envision addressing “spacefaring” again so soon, but events keep driving the issue of “human settlement in space” to front and center since it is the rationale for much of human spaceflight. That, of course, is the focus of the current "Augustine Committee" with a mandate to assess options for the future of human space exploration. They will soon report their formal recommendations to NASA that apparently project a significant delay in human exploration beyond LEO, due primarily to budget limitations. If implemented, that would impact NASA, its contractors, and the entrepreneurial commercial space sector in many ways that are already being discussed. The need for these three sectors to collaborate is increasing in parallel with the likelihood of expanded competition all around.  Things may get a bit dicey soon but the NASA committment to increased involvement by entrepreneurial space entities must not falter, now that it is well underway. 

But it was John Hickman’s recent Space Review article on “Coping with the Closing: Disempowerment in the Post-Apollo Narratives About the Space Frontier” that convinced me to continue this story. Hickman reminded me of how differently I think about human exploration and habitation than many of those who haven’t actually worked in space research and space infrastructure development. Hickman is a political scientist who is also an advocate for human settlement of space but approaches that from a broad social science viewpoint. Based on my background working with NASA and international space projects for more than 40 years, I can understand his views but see science and technical issues as being just as important as those in the area of strategy and political economy about which he also wrote, a decade ago. However, I do like his reference to the successful completion of the Panama Canal by the U.S. as being a reasonable analog for a first venture in human habitation perhaps leading to future settlement on the Moon.  The point being, it will take a major national committment of resources, even if the space commerce sector is heavily involved. 

In his recent article Hickman profiles several space advocate “narratives” based on the “emotionally painful truth that the entity [NASA] that briefly opened space as a geographic frontier [Apollo] was also the same entity that closed it [Apollo termination]”. My interpretation of this is quite different. President Kennedy’s view of, and NASA’s strategy on Apollo was driven primarily by perceived Cold War Soviet political threats based on space technology “gaps”, not our intent to open up human frontiers on the Moon. Public opinion on lunar exploration then was similar to what it is now, with about 60% of people seeing it as a worthwhile goal. This story has been well told recently associated with the 50th year anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

The reality is that we were not prepared to continue spending almost 5% of our GDP on NASA in 1969 and our technology, even though superb at accomplishing this goal, was never designed to establish a “frontier” (human outpost or settlement) on the Moon. We didn’t have life support systems to stay more than just a few days even if we had wanted to, and we don’t have them developed yet for even a short-stay return visit. As I wrote recently, we need to do intensive R&D on the effects on humans of chronic microgravity and radiation beyond LEO and on advanced life support systems that are practical, effective and as far as possible closed-loop with an emphasis on using in situ (local) resources.  Such research was one of the key rationales for building the ISS, and it is just becoming possible with completion of the ISS, with sufficient equipment, facilities and crew time available to really conduct significant research.

We also, as the Augustine Committee knows so well, need to identify and secure sufficient research funding to support university and commercial space investigators and developers in these endeavors. In many cases, our international partners are better prepared than we to fully activate their ISS research. We need ongoing R&D to determine how to utilize the ISS "outpost" as a path to spacefaring that includes homesteading, while regularly demonstrating to the public and congress the value of doing so for the nation. Luckily several cost-effective entrepreneurial space projects in suborbital space, on orbital free-flyers, and leading to cargo and human transport to/from the ISS will not only help us do this research, but also provide key infrastructure development on the path to spacefaring.


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