Van Allen Belts, Source: AstronomyCafe.net
We regularly see articles lamenting the fact that we’re stuck in Earth orbit and how with the Space Shuttle retirement approaching, we’ll soon have to pay others to even get there. These frustrated writers seem to suggest that if we were just able to advocate more effectively for the funding, we could travel to the Moon on the first available big rocket and establish human outposts there. Even John Noble Wilford, the Pulitzer-Prize winning space and science writer, notes in the New York Times that “humans remain stalled in low orbit”. With Obama’s proposed deferral of large rocket development and the human return to the Moon, Wilford asks, “Can Measured Beat Bold?". harkening back to Apollo when we took the boldest step of all. Wilford’s reference to “Measured” acknowledges Obama’s current approach to invest in advanced technology, robotics, and new infrastructure that will allow us to effectively use the International Space Station (ISS) that’s nearing completion, and conduct lunar missions without humans onboard.
Obama anticipates that new and cheaper solutions to accessing space will emerge from partnering with the private sector, and is urging NASA to focus more on our many national challenges such as climate change monitoring, disaster mitigation, and non-carbon energy advances along with exploring space. Good evidence indicates that it is what the broad public has been seeking for some time now, and considering current economic conditions and NASA’s urgent need for public support, it should be embraced. Wilford, in his last paragraph, wisely and elegantly notes that, “Even if robotic surrogates can go farther and make discoveries at less cost, the Obama space plan, if nothing else, reminds us that banked fires still burn and may yet light the way to distant shores. Humans will probably not rest until they again ride their technologies themselves.”
Now, while giving Obama a break, it’s really important for us to remember that we’re “stuck” in low Earth orbit for more reasons than lack of rockets or funds – a fact that always gets lost in the political battles that haunt human space exploration. The Moon lies well outside the Van Allen Belts surrounding Earth that protect us and space platforms in low Earth orbit like the ISS, against the worst kinds of cosmic radiation. We always have crew rescue vehicles attached to the ISS for a quick return to Earth if an on-orbit disaster like a meteorite impact occurs. Also, we transport food and water, supplies, equipment repair kits, replacement crews and much more, regularly to the ISS from Earth. We remain in Earth orbit in part because we are not yet prepared to establish human outposts on the far distant Moon and we have much work left to do there .
Have we forgotten that one of the main rationales for building the ISS was as a stepping stone to exploration beyond Earth orbit? We’re just finishing its construction now and have major research to do not just on human adaptation to living “off Earth” but also on developing reliable life support and recycling systems needed to eventually support and sustain human habitation for long durations, far from Earth. Research of this kind has not been consistently funded and needs to be pursued over the next decade of ISS operations, preferably in collaboration with our international partners.
We also need to add artificial gravity systems to the ISS that will allow us to simulate for research animals and humans, the effects of Earth gravity (1 g), and gravity on the Moon (1/6th g) and Mars (1/3rd g). A large centrifuge facility was one of the key research modules under development for the ISS, but it was very unfortunately cancelled due to funding shortfalls. Interest is growing rapidly among the international partners in bringing this research capability to the ISS for broad use. When we are actually prepared to develop and transport human outposts on the Moon we will have accumulated much new knowledge and technologies that will also allow us to travel to other locations besides the Moon. Bigelow Aerospace, an entrepreneurial space habitat company has already proposed using its expandable modules as human transport systems to sites near the Moon but also as landers and preliminary bases for future human outposts. Such commercial investments can pay off not only for flexible future human exploration, but right here on Earth too by producing profits and hence new careers.