I am sending the following letter to NASA's new Administrator, Charles F. Bolden, Jr. and to the President etc. in hopes of setting a new course for the moribund Space Agency. It is a long-shot, I know, but I remember when the Moon Mission was, when that was proposed by J.F.K.
Dear Mr. Bolden:
As I write this, the Space Shuttle Discovery is preparing for the 128th shuttle mission. It is also the countdown to a far less inspiring deadline: the retirement of the entire 3 shuttle fleet in 13 months.
I grew up with the space program, watching and rooting for Americans to go "where no man has gone before," to quote the perhaps over-worn Star Trek lead-in. I can scarcely believe that in about a year, America will have gone from the nation that invented the manned space program, to not being able to send men and women into space at all. (The private endeavors are thus far barely able to penetrate the upper atmospheric boundary and are, frankly, stunts designed to awe gullible, and rich, paying passengers for a joyride). The idea that we will only be able to reach the International Space Station by hitching a costly ride on Russian Soyuz Spaceship, despite the end of the Cold War, strikes me as both foolishly complacent, and an abrogation of our national ambition. Is it any wonder we are slipping behind the world in math and science when we are telling our children that being able to launch Americans into space is somehow a task better left to others, outsourced to anyone who will do it, even to countries who may not be our allies in the future?
I realize that the economy is reeling, and times are difficult, but as John F. Kennedy said in 1962, "We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard." Besides, no one ever said the Apollo program, or the Space Shuttle, or any of the other many successful NASA programs were a net American loss. The benefits of the space program, not just for our national image, but in real, tangible payoffs are as numerous as they are well-documented, and I won't rehash them here.
I am equally disturbed, and a bit alarmed, at the concentration of effort on the under-funded and behind-schedule Ares Rocket. At best, this will not be ready until 2016, and most objective observers who also look at the lack of funding, would put its ready date much farther into the future than that, perhaps 2020. This week, a blue ribbon panel of scientists concluded that we may not re-reach the moon until 2030! They also concluded -- correctly, albeit understatedly -- that it makes no sense to throw away the then-completed Space Station in 2016, in order to use the "use the freed-up money to develop the heavy-lift Ares V rocket."
I humbly propose a different scenario. One that will:
1. Get Americans to Mars by 2020
2. Keep America's current and only means of practical orbital space travel -- the Space Shuttle -- working until there is a suitable replacement.
3. Utilize the Space Station, and even expand it, with a new and highly exciting mission; a mission that will inspire people young and old with its ambition and its periodic progress.
4. Enable the development of next generation space ships to reach not just Mars, but the entire inner solar system, faster, better, and cheaper.
It is a well-established fact that escaping the Earth's Gravity Well is one of the main reasons for the ponderous multi-stage rockets, including the Space Shuttle. Every rocket, from Apollo onwards, has dropped most of its fuel weight just for escaping Earth's gravity. Well, what if we could start the journey to the planets, or the Moon, from orbit? Then we would not only not need such powerful, but clumsy chemical rockets, but it might make more sense to use space ships capable of flying longer distances, but with less raw acceleration power. After all, a ferry is fine for crossing the river, but you board an entirely different kind of ship to cross the ocean, one that might even need to be tugged into open water to begin traveling under its own power.
We already know how to get to the space station, and how to transport heavy components developed here on Earth to add to the space station. Why not take the next logical step, and actually assemble a next generation Space Ship, perhaps a magnetoplasma drive vehicle like the Vasimir, or even something more advanced, designed specifically for the long reaches of space, not the short but draggy hops to the orbit. This, as you probably know, was the idea behind building the fictional Star Ship Enterprise in the wildly popular Star Trek series. We're already halfway there -- with a working Space "Truck" (the Shuttle) and a functional, albeit in need of expansion, Space Station.
A new mission of building a true interplanetary Space Ship -- one that would never touch ground, but which could send out reusable manned probes -- would be observable, inspiring, logical (and not just for Spock), doable in a shorter time frame, and cheaper in the long run than setting up a Moon Base which would have little other purpose (since we've already been there), in order to go from that not inconsiderable gravity well to Mars and back to -- where -- the Moon(?). It is both more direct, and more sensible to use a modified space station as the launching pad to Mars than the Moon.
Ten-year Space Missions, like ten-year economic forecasts, tend to get twisted beyond recognition by the time they are executed, and it's very likely that the idea of using the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars will become the goal of simply reaching the Moon -- again. Americans have been there, done that, and they are unlikely to be so enamored of returning to a place that while once a challenge, is now known to be a sterile barren place of moondust. It is unlikely they will be keen to fund such a mission knowing it is just a "Yes, but what we really want to do is reach Mars -- someday" stepping stone. Certainly, two decades is way beyond the average Americans' infamous short attention span.