Tuesday, January 24, 2012

No Space Settlement Goal

In the early sixties, President Kennedy made a definite goal with a deadline. That goal, in retrospect, was quite modest. At the time, it may have seemed rather bold, but it is actually pretty modest to only go for a visit and then come right back.

A more ambitious goal would have been settlement. Not having been to the moon before, at that time, and not knowing what could be found when we got there, prudence dictated a more modest goal than settlement. There was an opportunity for more, however.

With a nuclear powered upper stage to the Saturn V rocket, more ambitious missions could have been supported, but the window of opportunity closed when the Apollo program ended. Instead of building upon the success of Apollo, the Shuttle program was adopted instead. Subsequently, the government decided not to develop the Shuttle to its full potential, which left the human space program stuck in a low Earth orbit limbo.

Now the Shuttle program has ended after 30 years and the question is asked: what's next? Constellation was canceled, so there will be no return to Mars any time soon. A visit to an asteroid is proposed, but that could change if a new president is elected this coming fall.

Speaker Gingrich has mentioned a speech about space, so at least somebody in this race is thinking about the subject. Given the most recent developments, would the president be motivated towards a more ambitious approach when it comes to space? Not so much as a Sputnik this time: more like a vision of opportunity beckoning and the boldness to go for it. How much more would it take to get something definite on the agenda, such as a relatively bold JFK type goal with a definite timetable?

There needs to be definite goals and definite timetables. If those don't exist, it is all too easy to drift along. Constellation was a step in the right direction, but the timetable was too long, as it spanned several administrations. One decade seems makeable, if the Apollo experience is any indication. Why not divide the goal into makeable parts and then work towards that goal in a gradual way, one administration at a time? The Augustine commission suggested that goals should not be destinations, but capabilities. If capabilities are parceled out one administration at a time, the ultimate goal of settling space could easily fall within reach of one administration.  At that time, the actual goal could be set with a reasonable chance of achieving it.

If there's no capability to get to a destination, such as Mars, it must be developed. But development takes time. By the time the next president's tenure is over, that capability may still not exist. Clearly, a road map needs to be developed which would set milestones for each step along the way towards the ultimate goal, with political achievable sub goals.

Jeff Greason gave a talk on the subject in the past year or so. He compared our situation to World War II. That is, the goal, to win that war, was obvious, so the strategy to achieve that goal has to be decided upon.  One strategy at that time was called island hopping.  It wasn't a direct assault upon Japan all at one time with one giant armada to take on the Japanese in one decisive battle.  No, it was broken down into smaller parts- one island at a time.  Fast forward to the present- we don't seem to know what we want from space. Currently, not only do we not have an explicit goal with respect to space, but there's isn't exactly a strategy either. Either it is only exploration, or it should be more ambitious, such as space settlement. Obviously, I think the latter.

We should first decide upon what we want from space, then strategize it by breaking the task up into smaller parts.  This approach allows for setbacks along the way, but it gives the flexibility of a long term reasonable chance of success.

Clearly, the means to achieve settlement of Mars does not yet exist. To develop those means will take several new technologies. What kind of technologies?  One idea is fuel depots, which can save mass that has to lifted off the ground.  It is this additional mass which is so expensive and what makes space travel inaccessible at this time. Refueling can enable resuability with respect to space vehicles, which was partially achieved with the shuttle program.  It would seem that the next administration could focus upon fuel depots as the next enabling technology.

Hopefully, fuel depots won't take as long as the shuttle did.  Thirty years from now, fuel depots should be only one of many enabling technologies that have been developed along the way towards the goal of space settlement.  But to reach that goal, you have to get started.  We seemed to be stuck in a mode where that decision keeps getting deferred. If the ultimate goal is to be settlement, then next sub goal should be fuel depots.

It was once asked, if it isn't settlement, what the hell are we doing up there?  It needs to be decided upon one way or another.

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