Monday, March 15, 2010

Why We Need a Human Spaceflight

Space aficionados may be aware that President Obama has canceled the previous administration's "Vision for Space Exploration", which consisted of the Constellation program including Ares I, Ares V, and Orion. This has been fairly well covered in the mainstream media.

Critics of the Constellation program raise some significant and relevant objections to the Constellation program.

However, I strongly believe that as a nation, we need a national space program that includes human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit. The cancellation of Constellation, while perhaps with good cause, has left our national space program with a vacuum -- the lack of a heavy lift vehicle, and lack of any vision, would effectively constrain human exploration to LEO for a generation. Furthermore, it significantly constrains the kinds of activities that we can perform in LEO.

Its my belief that this is short-sighted in the extreme.

We need a space program that includes vehicles with the ability to loft large payloads into orbit. Projects like the International Space Station, and further commercialization of space, are only possible with the ability to loft a significant payload into orbit.

We also need to plan for human exploration beyond our front porch. While many people argue that sending robotic explorers is less risky, and far cheaper, the idea that we can or should abdicate all future space endeavors to robotic missions is actually offensive.

Robots won't inspire a generation of students to continue to excel at math and science. Robots can't stand in as national heroes. And robots alone won't help develop the enthusiasm required for the general public to continue to want to invest in space and space technologies. Robotic exploration is mostly a solved problem -- many new technologies that are necessary for human space travel will simply not be invented or invested in, without the "problems" to solve that are involved in human space exploration.

I'm from a generation of kids who viewed astronauts as near personal heroes; I dreamed, and still dream, of being able to see our planet from space itself one day. I dream of the days when human kind steps beyond just Earth, and has outposts on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and perhaps other interesting places in the solar system. And someday beyond.

My own son dreams someday of being an astronaut and visiting Mars. Unfunded as it was, at least VSE allowed a glimmer of such a hope. Obama has killed that hope, and maybe the dreams and hopes of thousands or millions of other like minded kids.

Fortunately, there is a proposal that would revive these dreams, and allow us to retain a national heavy lift capability, retain a lot of the knowledge and expertise that we acquired with the successful STS (space shuttle) program (even reusing a significant amount of the materials and technology), and allow for a "way forward" that would allow us to get beyond LEO and go to interesting places elsewhere in the solar system. The DIRECT v3.0 proposal is IMO the best way forward; it allows us to have our cake and eat it too -- giving us all the heavy lift capabilities that we need, minimizing the significant impact on our economy that both the Constellation program, and the cancellation of the STS and Constellation programs, create.

I firmly believe that we are on the cusp of a major economic shift, where commercialization of space may play as important a role in the coming decade or two as the Internet has played in the previous two. The question is, will we as a nation continue to develop that potential, or will we let it slip away, to be picked up by India, China, or Russia?

Yes, I'm an American. And I believe that it is important for America to be a leader in the exploration and utilization of space. Ultimately, I believe that "planting flags" is much more important than the proponents of solely robotic exploration would have us believe. Someday people will visit Mars. Will America be there, or will we just be an observer while one of the Asian nations celebrates a major achievement?

2 comments:

David said...

Hi,

I agree with you 100%, I can still remember the black and white TV pictures coming from the moon during the first landing.

We need to stretch as a nation and a as the human race.

I cannot believe, that we the USA, need to buy space on some other nations rockets to get to what is really our ISS.

Going back to the moon or mars and building a long term habitat is for me a goal we should have.

You don't really even see a shuttle launch or landing on TV anymore, my grand kids don't really think it's real.

We need a plan to allow the next generations to dream, as we did during Apollo.

Dave

Garrett D'Amore said...

Rafael Vanoni pointed this out to me:

http://www.ted.com/talks/burt_rutan_sees_the_future_of_space.html

I really like what he has to say. I think we still need a national heavy lift capacity. Ideally the technology would be available to commercial players as well.