Demand a Purpose-Driven Space Program
On April 19, 2018, Jim Bridenstine was finally confirmed as the new NASA administer, taking over the agency after more than a year (arguably more than nine years) of leaderless drift. Now that the one-time Navy pilot and Oklahoma congressman has had a few weeks to settle into his office and see what is going on, I feel it is an opportune time to offer some advice. So here it is:
Dear Administrator Bridenstine;
Congratulations on your appointment. You have taken over an agency, parts of which—the space astronomy and planetary exploration programs—have been accomplishing world-historic feats that will be remembered for centuries, while other parts—most notably the human spaceflight program—have been spending tens of billions of dollars achieving nothing at all. The difference is that the astronomy and planetary exploration programs have chosen to spend their funds in an intelligent purpose-driven manner, while human spaceflight program has been allowed to operate purpose-free.
Hubble, Kepler, TESS, Webb, Opportunity, Spirit, Curiosity, and Cassini were built and flown for reasons. In contrast, the human spaceflight program proposes projects, and then tries to invent rationales. The former spends money in order to do things. The latter does things in order to spend money.
Let’s take the current proposal to build a lunar orbiting space station as an example. What purpose does it serve? Some say that it “might be useful” to support a lunar base, which is the administration’s nominal objective. But is it necessary?
Let me put it this way, since you are a pilot. Let’s say you were flying an airplane from Reagan airport to LaGuardia, which of these do you really need?
(A) A pilots’ club in Pittsburgh, or
(B) Landing gear for your airplane.
A pilots’ club in Pittsburgh might be nice to have once in a while, but you really need landing gear if you want to land. It’s the same with the moon. If you want to build and operate a lunar base you need a lunar lander. You do not need a lunar orbiting space station. Similarly, if you want to build and operate a Mars base you need a Mars lander. You do not need a lunar orbiting space station.
You may recall that during the Obama administration, some people came up with the silly idea of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) whose goal was to move a small chunk of an asteroid to lunar orbit to give astronauts flying around trans-lunar space in the Orion capsule something to visit. The lunar orbiting space station is the ARM without the asteroid. It is not a bridge to the moon or Mars. It is a programmatic toll booth blocking the way to the moon or Mars.
To choose to build a lunar orbiting toll booth instead of a lunar or Mars lander is to choose not to go to the moon or Mars.
So, the clear decision if you actually want to get Americans to the moon in our time is to cancel the lunar orbiting toll booth and use its ample funding ($504 million this year, with much more planned to follow) to develop a lunar lander. You could do the latter via traditional procurement methods and be far better off than you are now. But the remarkable recent and growing successes of the entrepreneurial space industry suggests an alternative that could do much better still.
Instead of procuring translunar transportation systems, why not procure translunar transportation services? Use the commercial space model and put out a call to industry to propose transportation services to deliver cargos of various sizes one-way to the lunar surface and human crews round-trip. You can bet that companies competing to provide such delivery services on the most cost-effective basis will take a very purpose-driven approach. NASA’s role would then be to specify the payloads to be delivered to the lunar surface and direct the activities to done there.
Done in this way, you may find that you can not only create a lunar base much more swiftly and cheaply than anything now deemed possible, but demonstrate a model that can soon afterwards open the Martian frontier as well.
There are various vested interests you will cross by taking the course described above, and you will need all the political support you can get. One thing that could really help is for you to take immediate action to reverse the administration’s dumb decision to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) space telescope.
WFIRST is a 2.2 meter space telescope with field of view 100 times greater than Hubble, made possible on a bargain budget of $3 billion by the donation of a surplus spy satellite to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office. It has been approved and strongly backed as a high priority by every science review committee advising the government. It promises breakthrough discoveries of exoplanets, and could potentially reveal the truth about the nature of the dark energy that is driving the expansion of the universe, and numerous other questions in astrophysics. Particularly exciting is the possibility of using WFIRST to obtain spectra of the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. If it finds free oxygen—which did not exist on Earth until we had a biosphere and which does not exist on any other planet in our solar system—that would be strong evidence of the presence of plentiful life.
This is exactly the kind of mission that NASA should be doing, and saving it would do much to mitigate the political polarization that delayed your confirmation, and which could potentially derail any effort on your part to accomplish anything significant during your turn at the space agency helm.
Furthermore, if you are looking for an actually productive mission for the Orion space capsule, supporting the operation of space telescopes like WFIRST in nearby interplanetary space fits the bill perfectly. The great shining lights in the otherwise mostly pointless space shuttle program were the shuttle’s five missions to repair and continuously upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. If all 135 shuttle missions had been of comparable value, the shuttle would have been the most productive science program of all time. Orion is overdesigned for use in transporting crew from Earth to orbit and too small to serve as crew quarters on a 2.5-year roundtrip mission to Mars, but could be about right for multiweek sorties to observatories in near-Earth heliocentric space. So rather than curtail the space astronomy program, you should seek to expand it, providing astronauts with the tools they need to show what brave men and women, sent into space as explorers, rather than medical test subjects, can really do.
The American people want and deserve a space program that is really going somewhere and doing great things. As the recent excellent appropriations for NASA show, they are willing to pay for it. The epic successes of the space astronomy, planetary exploration, and entrepreneurial space-launch companies show what human ingenuity can do when those in charge take a purpose-driven approach. Now it is up to you.
I stand ready to help any way I can.
Dr. Robert Zubrin
President, The Mars Society, & President, Pioneer Astronautics