Experts Say Path Beyond Earth Orbit Has Its Challenges

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Scientists, technologists, and policy experts who gathered recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are enthusiastic about the prospect of lunar and Mars missions. However, they cautioned that the path to exploration beyond Earth orbit will not be easy and will probably require significant changes at NASA and in the aerospace industry.

"We can in fact do this mission inside the resources that are available," but there are several thorny issues, said Robert Walker, a former Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania who chaired the House Science Committee and also served this year on the Presidential Commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy.

One of the things that worries him most, Walker said, is people inside NASA who are more focused on protecting existing programs than on moving ahead with the agency's new vision.

"There are lots of people inside of NASA who believe that their individual little programs are vastly more important than the totality of the program," Walker said during the event, SpaceVision 2004, held here at the MIT Nov. 11-14 and hosted by the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) and the MIT Mars Society.

"So one of the things that NASA has to do is fight its way through its own culture," he explained.

For example, there are those inside NASA, Walker said, who see getting the space shuttle back to flying and completing the International Space Station as the "be all and end all" of the President's vision. Those people, he said, believe that "if we can do those two things over the next few years ... we can keep the shuttle flying out to about the year 2015 ... and everything will be hunky dory."

Flying the shuttle that long, he said, will absorb money into those two programs at the expense of the exploration mission, Walker said.

If managed properly, however, there will be enough money for a good exploration program that fulfills the new vision, Walker said.

The vision calls for the 2004 equivalent of a $16 billion a year budget over the next 30 years, a total investment of $400 billion to $500 billion, said Walker, who also chaired the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry in 2003.

Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon "Pete" Worden was even more harsh in his assessment of the shuttle program.

"I'm absolutely convinced that we don't ever need to fly the shuttle again. We've got three of them. Put them in the Smithsonian ... school parking lots. Kids can climb on them," said Worden, whose 30-year career spans a range of space duties, including stints at the White House National Space Council, the White House Office of Science and Technology and recently as a legislative fellow for U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Commerce science, technology and space subcommittee.

"I'm a veteran NASA basher," said Worden, who was on detail from his job as a research professor at the University of Arizona while he worked for Brownback. Worden said his Capitol Hill experience demonstrated to him that NASA actually stood for "Never A Straight Answer."

Worden also criticized the state of the aerospace industry calling large aerospace contractors "the three stooges" -- companies in which the average age of engineers is far too old. He complained that the companies are not likely to reinvent themselves, and that those firms should not be expected to help shape an affordable program in response to President Bush's space vision. "We have a problem with the companies. It's not necessarily their fault. They really are Department of Defense design bureaus," Worden said.

Playing the private wild card

The "wild card" in putting into action a sweeping space exploration program, Worden said, is relying on the private sector, including non-traditional start-up commercial space firms. As a first step, commercial services should provide all of NASA's launch needs, starting with the international space station, he said.

Worden said one bright spot is the revolution in microsatellites -- highly capable and inexpensive spacecraft that weigh roughly 220 pounds (100 kilograms) This technology -- coupled with low cost access to space -- should be enlisted in fulfilling several key space exploration needs, such as communications, navigation, situational awareness, and eventually power, he said.

"I would suggest a proper future is that the U.S. government should perform only those functions that the private sector can't or won't do in space," Worden said.

Paul Spudis, a senior staff scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who, like Walker, was a member of the Presidential Commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy, said NASA has a choice: "It can go forward or it can die," he said. "That literally is the choice. NASA cannot continue in the current mode because there's no support for it."

As envisioned by President George W. Bush, the nation has in front of it "a journey of exploration without end," Spudis said. "Mars is on the agenda, but so are a lot of other destinations."

The goals are so ambitious that it's not just the next NASA program, Spudis said. "There's something much bigger at work here," he said, calling the vision a national program that involves more than just government, and must include the private sector as well.

Spudis said there are those in NASA who embrace the idea of just going to the moon to land, step out, spray paint the rocks red, pretend astronauts are on Mars, take a few pictures, then go to Mars because that's where the action is.

"That is not the intent of the vision ... it's not the mission," Spudis said. "It is to answer the question: Can we live off-planet?"

Spudis said what he would like to see is an emphasis on placing enough infrastructure on the moon so that when the first human crew arrives, they move into largely a turn-key operation -- an operational lunar base.

One early advantage of returning humans to the Moon, Spudis said, is to identify what the optimum mix is of people and machines. Learning how to live and work there -- particularly utilizing local resources -- will also create the capabilities needed to go to other destinations, he added.

"The Moon is indeed a key to making this vision work correctly," Spudis said.

Walker said an important way to improve NASA can be found in one of the recommendations of this year's Presidential Commission: the conversion of NASA centers into Federally Funded Research and Development Centers.

Turning NASA's network of field centers into economic development units would make them commercially oriented rather than "NASAcentric," Walker said, adding that it also would help the centers tap into the wellspring of innovation that exists in the private community.

"Most of the private sector regards NASA as hostile to their interests," Walker said. "They regard NASA as being a place that will tell them all the reasons why they can't do what it is they are looking to do."

By using an economic development model, it's possible no reconfigured center would face closure, Walker said. And if a center did shut its doors, it would close because it couldn't compete, not because it was axed. "That's a far better way to have them die," he said.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.