Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"It's the Space Economy, Stupid!"

Paul D. Spudis
The Once and Future Moon
Smithsonian Air & Space Blogs

Those of us in favor of human lunar return have been called “dinosaurs” because, as it’s being told, we want to repeat what this nation already did 40 years ago. If that were our mission objective, such a characterization might be valid. But who really is the dinosaur?

At a recent Senate hearing, Norm Augustine told anecdotal stories in regard to lunar return, of how “our committee received many informal inputs, particularly from young people, questioning why we would have a space program whose centerpiece is something that was accomplished over a half-century earlier.” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden states publicly that trips to new (non-lunar) destinations is exciting, while there are already “six American flags on the Moon.” The President himself, referring to our efforts to return to the Moon, remarks with distain, “we’ve been there,” the implication being that only new destinations in space are sufficiently exciting for the American public.

The administration’s new direction calls on NASA’s manned space program to: 1) stop what they are doing; 2) transition into technology study groups with a window of five years for sketching out the hardware and roadmap that NASA will follow for visiting a variety of new and ever-more-distant destinations; and 3) as soon as a rocket is built, commence with the objective – a series of intermittent (though spectacular) space “firsts” (as they believe this formula is needed to recreate the emotional pull Apollo had on our nation) that will eventually lead to a human setting foot on something beyond LEO. The “new” direction requires that we launch everything we need on these voyages directly from the surface of the Earth. Afterwards, the small vehicle that returns the crew to Earth will be all that remains of the mission hardware. Then comes the next challenge: a more distant destination to keep a paying (but not going) public “engaged and excited.” The “new” template is nothing more than a very old one – keep the Roman public amused with circuses and gladiatorial shows.

In contrast, those of us who support the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) want to return to the Moon to use its abundant resources to incrementally create a sustainable, permanent human presence in cislunar space. We want reusable, extensible, maintainable and affordable systems in space. We want to unlock and harvest the enormous wealth of the Solar System for the benefit of all humanity. We want to do what has never before been done – extend our civilization into the universe. In place of one-off stunt missions, we want to create something of value – lasting and continuous access to space and its resources to expand our economy and create new wealth. Instead of repeating Apollo, the VSE is an engraved invitation that will encourage participation from the paying (and probably going) public. We want to build a real space economy.

The concept that our space program should excite people is a long-held faith in many space policy circles. Several annoying facts remain though, suggesting that regardless of their desire for public excitement, its existence (or lack thereof) does not historically track with our national space program. President Kennedy did not assemble a focus group or enlist a write-in campaign to gauge and prompt support for his call for a lunar landing program. In fact, he himself wanted to find another venue for Soviet-American competition, one that would produce more tangible and practical benefits, such as desalination of seawater.

Ever since it ended, NASA has doggedly tried to re-create the Apollo program. But the facts do not bear out their collective rosy memories of those days. Polls taken before and during the Apollo missions to the Moon, found, at best, a plurality of public opinion in support of the lunar landing effort. Many polls found a majority against the effort. Media interest was intense for the first landing (Would anyone expect otherwise?) but tailed off afterwards. During the totality of NASA’s existence, public support of the space program has hovered around 50-50 favor/oppose, regardless of what the agency was doing at the time. My conclusion from these results is that, in broad terms, people don’t really care that much about space; they do not oppose it, but they are not wildly enthusiastic about it either. Perhaps they can’t picture a time when they will move beyond their current role as mere spectators.

"Majority of Americans Say Space Program Costs Justified," Gallup/NBC

There is a belief in space circles that public excitement is a critical and driving factor in selecting goals and objectives in space. Threads on various space forums repeatedly argue for or against some path forward on the grounds that a certain program or effort will excite people. This belief is closely related to its corollary belief that excitement equals political support and hence, more funding for space efforts. There are two issues with this kind of thinking. First, regardless of the excitement factor, one cannot set goals and objectives that are technically impossible. For example, if the public decided tomorrow that only interstellar voyages were their hearts’ desire, we would not set that as a goal because we don’t know how to do it. More seriously, excitement does not necessarily correlate with value. We all buy and pay for many things that are exciting, such as watching or participating in sporting events, but after they are over, they are over. They may have some long-term value in improving our own health or satisfying a need to be entertained, but eventually, we turn away from them and go back to attending to the necessities of our daily lives. As adults, we need to spend time and money on practical matters as we plan and prepare for our futures.

In other words, it’s not excitement that we need from our space program, it’s value for the money spent. Many in the space community (and even many inside the agency itself) parrot the falsehood that lunar return under the VSE was all about repeating Apollo. In contrast to the trite “been there, done that” formulation of such misdirected thinking, the real purpose of return to the Moon under the VSE was to learn how to create sustainable human presence off the Earth, including learning how to harvest and use its material and energy resources. Such an objective has never been attempted. In fact, we’re not even certain that it can be done – that’s why it was given to an agency reputed to be our premier technical problem-solving agency – NASA.

So, who is the dinosaur here?

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