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Sizing up the space races

— This week's reviews of NASA's new plan for space exploration have been mixed at best, and grim at worst. The plan calls for canceling the back-to-the-moon Constellation program, extending utilization of the International Space Station, and developing technologies step-by-step to go beyond Earth orbit. The problem is, where should NASA go? And when?

During Wednesday's Senate subcommittee hearing, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Mars should be the prime destination for human spaceflight but acknowledged that "we can't get there right now because we don't have the technology to do it." Lawmakers responded that without a clear destination and timetable, NASA might end up going nowhere fast. Here are a few Web links, with a tip o' the blog to Rick Sterling:

One of the more interesting back-and-forth exchanges doesn't involve NASA and Congress, but rather The Wall Street Journal and private-space pioneer Burt Rutan, the guy behind the SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo rocket projects.

NASA's plan calls for entrusting resupply of the space station to private launch providers - which has been a sticking point for some members of Congress. On Wednesday, the Journal quoted from a letter that Rutan sent to lawmakers, saying he was "fearful that the commercial guys will fail." Today, the Hyperbola blog quoted Rutan as saying that the Journal "chose to cherry-pick and misquote" his comments - and passed along a statement saying "it is a good idea indeed for the commercial community to compete to resupply the ISS. ..."

However, Rutan said commercialization had its limits:

"... I do not see the commercial companies taking American to Mars or to the moons of Saturn within my lifetime, and I doubt if they will take the true Research risks (technical and financial) to fly new concepts that have low confidence of return on investment."

At least some of the commercial companies vying for NASA's business might agree with that view. Most observers would say NASA wants to commercialize space station resupply so that it can devote more in-house resources to the riskier job of exploration beyond Earth orbit. Today, the Journal published an op-ed piece by Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin supporting NASA's new vision:

"The new NASA budget makes sense for many important reasons. First, the president is signaling that this agency deserves the full support of this administration and Congress, even as priorities are sorted out and other budgets are cut. Second, getting long-range spaceflight right requires getting near-Earth orbit perfect. Third, forestalling the moon mission in favor of perfecting the technologies that will allow us to reach Mars within some defined period ahead is sound. We should not rush it and experience an avoidable tragedy."

Rutan responded with an e-mail sent to me and other folks on his mailing list. I've made slight editing changes to spell out abbreviations (such as "thru" and "$"):

"This sounds fine through the lens of my friend Buzz Aldrin.  However, the reality is that the new plan has no schedules, no dollars and no programs to build government hardware for any future manned spaceflight activity.

"In 1962 we contracted North American to develop the Apollo spacecraft before we had even decided that we would need to do lunar orbit rendezvous. It was another three-plus years before rendezvous was demonstrated in Earth orbit! We boldly moved forward with the assumption that the technology would be there. In contrast, NASA has, for the last two decades, shown that they can burn through hundreds of billions of dollars without flying anything new.  The new plan almost guarantees another decade or two of the same behavior.

"Many believe that failure of a research technology initiative is defined only by its test data or by its accident record.  However, most government 'research' programs fail in another way - spending all the money and over-running the schedule before even having the courage to do the testing of the new, poorly understood ideas.

"This new NASA plan will not have good optics for Americans over the next decade or two, as the exploration (i.e., above low Earth orbit) activity will be done by our adversaries while we look on and rerun the old films of Apollo.  Buzz will continue to be our hero, but our youth may yearn to move to where the action is."

Rutan's last point is a particularly interesting one: If there is a new space race in our future, where will the race end? Four decades ago, the finish line was the moon. Now that China, India, Japan and Europe are now in the lunar exploration business, will the moon be the finish line again? Or should NASA give a "been there, done that" shrug and aim directly for Mars?

The idea behind NASA's previous vision was that the moon would be a steppingstone to the Red Planet - but Robert Zubrin, a rocket scientist and the Mars Society's president, makes a forceful (and predictable) case in this week's issue of Space News that Mars has to become the focus of an Apollo-scale, all-out push:

"... Without the guidance supplied by a driving mission, under the new Obama space policy, another 10 years and more than a hundred billion dollars will be spent by NASA's human spaceflight program without achieving anything significant. ... The American people want and deserve a human spaceflight program that really is going somewhere, and not just anywhere, but to a destination that is really worth going to.  That destination is Mars."

NASA's proposed exploration plan allows for other destinations, however, such as near-Earth asteroids. And that could serve as the focus for yet another type of space race. On his Space Politics blog, Space-industry consultant Jeff Foust quotes Norm Augustine, the chairman of last year's influential space policy review panel, as saying he wasn't so worried about Chinese missions to the moon.

"'My worry,' he continued, 'will be that the Chinese will land on an asteroid and scare the hell out of us, as they could do relatively soon if they decide to do it. Maybe if they're smart they won't do it, because it probably will wake us up like Sputnik did.'"

Why would that be so scary? Augustine suggested that it would be because such a mission would be a sign of rapid Chinese progress in human spaceflight, claiming a "first" that Americans have never achieved. But I think there's a bigger fear factor involved.

Sputnik led to fears that the Soviets could rain down spaceborne bombs, and the Soviets' manned space effort sparked worries that Communists might control a "Red moon." Can you imagine how people would react if they got the idea that a rival could put rockets down on near-Earth asteroids? Death from the skies, indeed!

Mars may be where answers to the deepest questions lie - but if NASA planners are making a list of space races, they shouldn't forget the asteroids. Is that the way you see it? Feel free to add your comments below.

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