NASA’s Next Frontier

By Chip Neville
West Hartford, CT

Editor’s Note: After graduation, Chip Neville served in the Civil Rights movement in 1965 (Mississippi) and 1966 (Chicago), and then went on to become a Ph.D. mathematician and a successful scholar – i.e., Professor – in mathematics and computer science. His current day job is heading up his own software consulting firm, CWN Research, in the Hartford, Conn area. Specializing in producing customized databases (not surprisingly, given Chip’s expertise, CWN Research has its own website).  Chip has had a lifetime fascination with astronomy, and as a by-product of that interest has acquired an expert’s knowledge of the history and technology of U.S. space program. Chip’s own modest overview of his current status  is: “I am now completely retired. I no longer do database work for people, and CWN Research is simply a place for me to post my (mainly mathematical) research…”  Regarding space exploration, he says, “I do not have, and never have had, a connection to NASA. I am not an expert, despite being a mathematician, computer scientist, and amateur astronomer, and I really didn’t feel confident broadcasting my private opinion that unmanned robotic spaceflight was the most important thing we were doing, and should not be sacrificed for manned missions.” Without further ado, let us hear what Chip has to say about the future of NASA.

Liftoff of Apollo 11, July 16, 2009. Source: The Project Apollo Archive

Liftoff of Apollo 11, July 16, 2009. Source: The Project Apollo Archive

As part of the celebrations commemorating the first landing on the Moon in 1969, WBUR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” hosted a fascinating live debate between advocates of NASA’s plan to return to the Moon first before going to Mars, and advocates of the direct-to-Mars approach. Speaking for the NASA plan were David Kring, Senior Staff Scientist at the USRA (Universities Space Research Institution) Lunar and Planetary Institute, and Harrison Schmitt, geologist, former NASA astronaut, crew member on the 1975 Apollo 17 lunar mission, the ONLY SCIENTIST EVER TO WALK ON THE MOON, and former United States Senator from New Mexico. Speaking for the direct-to-Mars approach was Robert Zubrin, President of Pioneer Astronautics and the The Mars Society.

I don’t plan on taking sides in this debate; I simply want to report on it. The quotations are approximate as I never took shorthand in high school (though I type rather fast as a result of being a computer scientist) and sometimes are taken out of order for clarity. Full disclosure: Though I am neither an aerospace engineer nor an astronomer, I am a member of the scientific community — I am a mathematician and computer scientist, and I have a Ph.D. in mathematics — and I do have strong feelings about the importance of robotic exploration of the solar system and space based astronomy. I plan to express these opinions as I analyze the positions taken by the participants.

Mars first or Moon first?

Zubrin, the Mars Society guy, said, “The Moon was a great challenge in the 1960’s, but for NASA to set as its great goal something we did 50 years ago is something of a farce. NASA is not set up as a nostalgia agency … We got to the moon 8 years after Kennedy’s (1961) speech starting in the era before push button telephones had been invented. If we don’t do things with that intensity, we won’t get there (to the Moon or Mars).” Kring, the Lunar and Planetary Institute guy, responded, “If we strolled around the Boston Gardens for half an hour, we wouldn’t say we had explored the Earth. The Moon lets us answer questions about the entire solar system.” Ashbrook, the host (and a 1977 Yale graduate), summarized by saying, “The moon lets us shake the rust out and get things right,” and Kring agreed.

Astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt collects samples on the Moon

Astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt collects samples on the Moon

Schmitt, the geologist and former astronaut said, “The fastest way to get to Mars is by way of the Moon. We need to learn again, unfortunately again, how to operate in deep space. There is another generation or two that will have to learn what we learned the hard way in the 1960’s. Once you are established on the Moon, you will have oxygen and other resources in a 1/6 g gravity well rather than a 1 g gravity well.” Zubrin disagreed and said that it is actually more energetically expensive to go to the Moon and refuel, even with fuel made on the Moon, than to go directly to Mars. Both sides planned to use fuel manufactured on Mars for the return trip. Zubrin also said that landing on the Moon does not help us learn how to land on Mars because the Moon is airless, whereas Mars has an atmosphere and we will use atmospheric braking to land on Mars.

Fusion power and other dreams.

So far, so good. Both positions are reasonable, and the arguments advanced by both sides were good. But now we come to the serious flaws in the arguments advanced by many people in the space community. Schmitt advanced the “mining the Moon” argument: “The Moon has resources we can use, for instance helium 3 for fusion power to power space ships and for power here on Earth. Helium 3 has the great advantage that it leaves no residual radioactivity.” For those of you who are not nuclear engineers, fusion power would tame thermonuclear fusion reactions, like the ones powering the H bomb, to produce useful electric power. The atomic power we now have tames nuclear fission reactions, like the ones powering the A bomb, to produce useful power.

Zubrin interjected a note of reality: “The fusion fuel on the Moon is interesting, but we have to develop a fusion reactor first, and I’d like to see the US fusion power budget doubled and tripled. Right now it is 1/3 what it was in 1984.”

Now there are several interesting points about this exchange, and these are crucial to understanding what is often wrong with these discussions. First, even Zubrin’s dose of reality is way overly optimistic. We have tried to contain and tame fusion reactions for over 35 years now, and we are nowhere close to success. Many engineers and scientists believe that “fusion is the power source of the future, always has been, always will be.” The fact that there are known Helium 3 deposits on the Moon (they have been located through satellite mapping) is no reason to go to the Moon anytime soon. In fact, the whole thing is over-hyped, and has been over-hyped for a very long time. I don’t mean for one moment to disparage the very real scientific and technological value of spaceflight, both manned and unmanned. But the plain fact of the matter is that we are not going to be mining the Moon or Mars and sending resources back to Earth in the near future.

Terraform on.

Nor are we going to “terraform” Mars and send millions of settlers out there to relieve overcrowding on Earth, as Zubrin advocated. It is just too expensive to get there; humans probably won’t adapt well to a lifetime of 1/3 g gravity, and converting an entire planet which is a far more forbidding desert than the Sahara into a lush green Garden of Eden (that’s what “terraforming” means) is just not feasible with any technology we now possess or are likely to possess anytime soon. And even if we did it, the lower gravity of Mars would allow the hydrogen from the water we somehow brought from the depths to the surface to escape into space, and Mars would dry out again over a period of a few million years, so it is just not a long term solution for our species.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, Zubrin actually mentioned “terraforming” as a goal of manned Martian exploration, though, to be fair, he did put it off as a very long term goal. Here’s part of what he said in his advocacy of “terraforming”:

No sooner does Hawaii emerge out of the sea than birds fly over and distribute seeds on the barren earth and Europeans arrive and build hotels so there is a nice place to stay. It would be unnatural if humans, the kind of bird evolution has evolved that can fly across space, did not distribute the seeds of life.

I don’t know about you, but I notice in this statement a lack of attention to the Polynesians who settled Hawaii long before Europeans came, and whose language is still one of the two official languages of the State of Hawaii. (The other is, of course, English.) I also notice a lack of attention to the environmental degradation all those hotels and all that development have created, which dismays many observers who live on the islands. (Not that we can do much about it at this point, except to try to mitigate some of the environmental harm.) Now we are not going to violate the rights of any native Martians because Mars is, as far as we know, lifeless. But if our record here on Earth is any guide, mining Mars and the Moon is likely to tear up the landscape.

Perhaps no one will notice the destruction on Mars, but the Moon is close enough so it will matter. These schemes are often grandiose, and one mentioned in the discussion is the proposal to mount giant solar arrays on the Moon and beam the power back to Earth by microwave. If we cover a quarter of the Moon with solar cells, it will certainly change the Moon’s appearance, even to the naked eye. And (more full disclosure) yes, I read science fiction. With a quarter of the Moon covered, could a giant Coke sign be far behind? The night sky is the possession of all mankind, and we need to think carefully about these issues before plunging ahead with the industrialization of the planets.

NASA’s propaganda machine.

Even putting future plans for mining the planets aside, one of the problems with NASA’s discussions of manned space flight is that far more is claimed than is true. For instance, as one of the “save our planet” points that NASA often makes to justify space exploration, Kring actually asserted that, “We now know the extinction that destroyed the dinosaurs was caused by an impacting asteroid because of the Apollo exploration of the lunar surface.” Sorry, but I’ve read Alvarez’s book. (Walter Alvarez, “‘T. rex’ and the Crater of Doom.“) The discovery was made here on Earth by examining the isotopic composition of the boundary layer between the Cretaceous (the last age of the dinosaurs) and the Tertiary (when there were no more). The discovery was confirmed by examining old oil company geologic cores from what turned out to be the probable crater made by the impactor. Samples from the Apollo missions may have contributed confirming evidence, and this is valuable, but they did not lead to the discovery. These sort of claims by NASA and its spokesmen are all too common, and are referred to by professional astronomers as part of “NASA’s propaganda machine.”

To continue or not to continue?

So if the discussion by all three participants was too extreme, should we continue with manned and unmanned space exploration? The answer, I believe, is an unqualified YES. Robotic exploration of the planets has revolutionized planetary science, a new field which did not even exist before the Apollo missions. The Hubble Space Telescope, a robotic instrument which requires manned space flight for maintenance, has revolutionized astronomy and our understanding of the universe. It has also produced images which have inspired millions. And who has not rooted for our plucky little robotic explorers still chugging along on the surface of Mars? Years ago before Hubble and the Mars explorers, Bruce Murray, then the head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said it well: If we do not continue in space, “Americans may lose touch with the race of heroes that triumphed in space, just as modern Greeks lost accountability with their heroes.” But he added, “I believe that in another 100 or 200 years, the solar system will be very familiar territory to our descendants.” (“US may lose race to the stars, space prober warns,” Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 1982.)

As for manned spaceflight, the answer too is YES, but with qualifications. NASA is now seriously under-funded and under-resourced. The problem is one we have repeatedly faced in military and civilian contexts since 18 of our Army Rangers were killed in Mogadishu in 1993, and we have faced it again in Iraq and Afghanistan in this century. NASA has faced this problem repeatedly since the last Apollo flight in 1972. We all remember how NASA scrapped the Saturn rockets after 1975, expecting the Space Shuttle to be ready in time for further missions to Skylab, and how the Shuttle was delayed and Skylab came ignominiously crashing to Earth in 1979. Though signature robotic exploration missions already well underway, such as Viking and Galileo, continued to be funded, the Space Shuttle program ate up most of NASA’s meager funds, and no new robotic exploration programs were initiated from 1977 until the mid 1980s. (New York Times, April 17, 1983.) Again, Bruce Murray put it well: “The decision to be made is do we care about the future. It’s the same decision we blew in the ’70s. . . . The future is under our control if we choose to influence it.” (Christian Science Monitor, January 26, 1982.) Manned space flight is an imperative, at least flight as far as the International Space Station, and, one would hope, back to the Moon and on to Mars. But it cannot be done on the cheap, and if we are going to mount manned space missions, we MUST devote enough money to simultaneously fund further robotic exploration of the solar system, and further space telescopes. To do any less would be a tragedy.

How have NASA and Congress, which after all must appropriate the funds, done so far? The record is not encouraging. Since its peak of 5.1% as a percentage of the Federal budget in 1966 (32 billion in 2007 constant dollars) NASA’s budget declined to 0.7% of the Federal budget in 1986 (13 billion in 2007 constant dollars), recovered somewhat from 1989 to 1993 when it was 1% of the Federal budget (18.5 billion in 2007 constant dollars in 1993) and then declined again to a low of 0.55% of the Federal budget in 2009 (17.2 billion dollars in 2007 constant dollars). The proposed 2010 budget is even lower as a percentage of the Federal budget (0.52%) though slightly higher in 2007 constant dollars (17.7 billion). (The Wikipedia, “NASA Budget“)

Deja vu all over again.

As a result, many experts fear that robotic exploration may be seriously impacted by the new Constellation program, which has as its immediate goal providing a replacement for the shuttle for near Earth orbital missions and resupply of the International Space Station, and for its ultimate goal a return to the Moon and a manned voyage to Mars. Of course the Constellation program is a long way from completion; the Shuttle is being retired, and we will be dependent in the immediate future on the Russians for International Space Station crew transfers and resupply. Alas, it seems we learned nothing from the Skylab fiasco, “it’s deja vu all over again.”

Successful flight of the X-40 glide test vehicle, an 85 percent scale X-37 built to test aerodynamics, August 11, 1998.

Successful flight of the X-40 glide test vehicle, an 85 percent scale X-37 built to test aerodynamics, August 11, 1998. Source: NASA and Wikipedia

NASA has behaved a bit like Apple Computer did before Steve Jobs took over again and gave the company some direction. You may remember that back then Apple could not mange to design a new operating system and lost so much market share that it nearly went bankrupt. The X 37 test vehicle was supposed to be a step along the way to a new, modernized, Space Shuttle, but NASA was forced to cancel the program in 2004 and hand it over to the Air Force (Wikipedia, Boeing X-37). The new Ares I launch vehicle suffers from extreme vibrations, and many experts feel it never will fly safely. (Wikipedia, Ares I.) If NASA doesn’t get its act together, we will not be able to do crew transfers to and from the International Space Station, and we will not be able to service the new space telescopes which are supposed to go up to replace the Hubble. And future Jet Propulsion Laboratory directors will talk about how we blew it in the 2000’s.

The great recession?

At one point in the “On Point” radio program, Tom Ashbrook, the host, interjected, “What about fact that we are in a recession, some call it a depression?” Harrison Schmitt, the geologist, astronaut, and former United States Senator replied, “We have many challenges we have to deal with and we have to deal with them simultaneously. One of the challenges is to be sure liberty prevails, and if nations without liberty dominate in space, liberty will be in danger here on Earth.”

Things look grim, but we can take heart. Though NASA is severely under-resourced, we could mount a manned return to the Moon and exploration of Mars as part of an international consortium, like the one under which the International Space Station operates. By cooperating and sharing the cost, even with nations without liberty like China, we can afford to return to the Moon and explore Mars, and we will foster international trust and good will in the process. No one can predict what will happen in Russia and China, or even in Iran, but a peaceful world probably promotes a change to democracy.

And things have looked even more grim in the past. As a 1986 Aviation Week & Space Technology editorial reminded us: “The (National Commission on Space) report’s preface sets the scene with reference to the year 1935 when Pan American Airways pioneered transpacific flights in Martin and Sikorsky flying boats and a Pony Express rider handed his mail pouch to a mailplane pilot in a staged ceremony symbolizing progress. The Atlantic Ocean remained a barrier to commercial air service, and in Washington, where nothing really seems to change, the politicians wrangled over the $20-billion deficit created by the $50-billion federal budget. In this context, the report asks, who could have predicted the state of technology in 1985?” (“Looking Toward the Year 2035,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, March 24, 1986). Who indeed could have predicted the state of technology in 1985, or in 2009, and who can predict what it will be in 2035?

A report and critical analysis like this cannot do justice to even one episode of Tom Ashbrook’s remarkable program, “On Point.” I urge you to listen to the full program devoted to NASA’s Next Frontier, which is available as an mp3 stream here. I also urge you to read Harrison Schmitt’s sober, detailed, and altogether wonderful article, “From the Moon to Mars,” in the July 2009 issue of  Scientific American.

A note on sources:

The newspaper and magazine quotations come from LexisNexis. The best way to locate the original article is to do a LexisNexis search. College professors say one is not supposed to reference the Wikipedia, but it is very accurate about technology, and its articles have the signal advantage of being freely available over the Web. In each case, the Wikipedia articles confirmed what I already knew, so I used them as references.

Additional reading: Chip’s article is The Human Space Flight Committee Report

(Chip’s email address is chip.neville@gmail.com)

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  • Chip Neville October 6, 2009 at 1:32 am

    Al,

    In regard to whether or not we can afford a vigorous manned spaceflight program, the economics may soon change. It appears that we are on the cusp of achieving economically viable commercial spaceflight. Some of this is discussed in my “Human Space Flight Committee” article. Something I didn’t discuss but which seems promising is the prospect of commercial space tourism, thanks to the Scaled Composite Corporation (now part of Grumman Aircraft) and Virgin Atlantic.

    If even some of this happens, we will be able to afford manned, I should say crewed, space exploration without spending the entire earnings of the next generation.

    Best,
    Chip

  • Chip Neville October 6, 2009 at 1:28 am

    Al,

    Right now, science, including unmanned robotic missions, gets a little less than 1/3 of NASA’s budget, that is around 5 billion dollars out of 18 billion. Even so, the Human Space Flight Committee Report (see the link at the end of my post) concludes that a sensible manned space flight program cannot be implemented without an additional 3 billion dollars for NASA’s manned program. As a nation, we can afford to spend this, even now. However, it is a good question whether or not we SHOULD spend the additional money.

    Personally, I’m agnostic on this issue, but there are some fascinating unmanned missions I would like to see flown. One special favorite of mine is a proposed carefully designed probe to be sent out as the early Pioneer spacecraft were, to test the unexplained orbital deviations of the Pioneer craft from the predictions of Newtonian gravity (and also Einsteinian gravity). What’s happening is that the Pioneer space craft are slowing down just a little bit more rapidly than theory predicts, and it is as though gravity gets ever so slightly stronger than it should at great distances. This “Pioneer anomaly” fits in with a theory which explains the anomalously rapid rotation of the outer parts of galaxies. But the slowdown could also be due to more mundane effects, such as slight outgassing of residual propellants. If we actually were able to test current theories of gravity at great distances and find them wanting, it would be an earthshaking discovery.

    Best,
    Chip

  • Chip Neville October 6, 2009 at 1:09 am

    Joe,

    There is now a link to my article on the Human Space Flight Committee Report.

    Thanks,
    Chip

  • Al Chambers October 2, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    Chip,

    Thanks for helping us focus on this important topic. Both manned and unmanned spaceflight have been such important parts of our adult life experience although they certainly have been receding in recent years. Sadly, it is hard to imagine how an energetic manned program can be financed given the nation’s soaring debt and critical domestic and international challenges. For now, it appears that unmanned scientific missions must be the focus of our vision and need to explore. The successes of the Mars Rovers, several interplanetary missions and Hubble have been breathtaking and deserving of more recognition. Hubble, of course, needed the Space Shuttle astronauts to do the maintenance repairs.

    My three years working for NBA News on NASA programs in the 60’s were an early highlight of my career and a time that I still treasure. The idea that this was 45 years ago certainly catches my attention.

    Al

  • Joseph B. Lambert October 1, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Could Chip comment on the Augustine Report, which purported to chart the future of manned (human) space flight but instead presented a series of options for the Obama administration to consider? The Report, however, seemed to argue that manned space flight is just too expensive for America and seemed to imply that there will be a much longer hiatus (if not a permanent cessation) in American manned space than presently planned when the Shuttle is taken out of service circa 2012. A likely scenario in fact seemed to be that people our age will have seen the entire lifetime of Americans in space, from Alan Shepard or John Glenn to the last Shuttle flight. If so, Chip’s alternatives of Moon vs. Mars become moot.