Monday, October 26, 2009

Passing the Torch of the Stars

The Augustine Commission, set up to review NASA's spaceflight goals and provide potential alternatives if necessary, presented its conclusions last week, and while it will likely be some time before President Obama makes a final decision on it, the implications are still percolating across the internet. The document is about a hundred and seventy pages, so it'll take me some time to go through it, but at least they didn't hide the general thrust of their argument. Human spaceflight isn't dead - far from it - but the Commission believes that NASA's current goal of a renewed lunar exploration program is ill-founded, and prefers a "flexible path" that would take astronauts to near-Earth asteroids or the moons of Mars - visits to Luna and Mars themselves would, for the foreseeable future, be confined to orbital missions only, to spare the expense of fuel necessary for landing and takeoff.

I do have my disagreements with the Commission's findings as I currently understand them, as I believe a lunar facility would be advantageous: both in terms of low-g research impossible to conduct on Earth or the International Space Station, as well as resource gathering that could support future space endeavors with materials that does not have to be hefted out of Earth's gravity well. Fortunately, the situation today is not the same as it was in the 1970s - when it comes to the potential of activity beyond low Earth orbit, NASA is no longer the only game in town for the foreseeable future.

A Mercury-Atlas rocket in the Kennedy Space Center Rocket Garden, February 2005

Take China. I know that China has made statements about how it would like to be involved in the International Space Station project, but at this point I don't think it's very likely that Beijing would be let in. Beyond that, I don't think defusing that sort of international competition in space development would be a good long-term thing. China has plans to orbit a space station of its own as Project 921-2, with the first element potentially launching as early as next year. A Chinese lunar mission is a natural follow-up, and if the Augustine Commission's report gains traction in Washington, the next boots on the moon likely will be Chinese ones.

I do wholeheartedly agree with the Commission on its view toward low Earth orbit transport. Its conclusion is that NASA should get out of the space trucking business entirely, and leave LEO crew and cargo flights to commercial providers. SpaceX, after its successful Falcon 1 launches in 2008 and 2009 and with the heavy-lift Falcon 9 set to light off from Cape Canaveral at the end of November, seems almost ready to take over this responsibility. Really, at this point it's the most sensible thing. Until now, NASA has been the workhorse because only NASA had the capability to do it, and there are those in Washington and elsewhere who do not particularly relish having to rely on the Russian Federation to maintain the American manned spaceflight program.

NASA blazed the trail, and now other organizations can carry the load. It's high time that NASA pass the torch to the companies and focus its time, money, and effort on what it was always meant to do - extend the horizon further and further.

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