Weighing In On Blue-Ribbon Panel Exploring NASA's Strategic Options for Human Space Flight

Something as challenging and expensive as a human space flight program needs a strategic objective that derives from who we are as a species of explorers, not the destination flavor of the month.
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The blue-ribbon panel tasked by the White House with reviewing NASA's current strategic plans for human space flight, and exploring other options, wraps up deliberations this week. They've been at it just 2 months, and this Friday Norman Augustine, the panel's chair, briefs new NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and WH science and technology advisor John Holdren. The final report is expected at the end of the month. I thought I'd weigh in.

I've been dwelling on an exchange that took place at a meeting last month between panel members Edward Crawley of MIT and Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace. It went to the heart of what I've been feeling for years. It addressed the fundamental driver for human space flight.

Crawley: Our ultimate objective should be viewed as the exploration and eventual extension of human civilization of the solar system.

Greason: I know this sounds terribly ambitious and dramatic, but if that is not the point of human space flight ... then what the hell are we doing?

Yes! Something as challenging and expensive as a U.S. national human space flight program needs a strategic objective that derives from who we are as a species of explorers, not the destination flavor of the month (or administration.) If we are to be bold, then let our boldness reflect the need for journey written in our genes. We are born to learn, driven to explore, and this drive takes the form of simple questions like, "What might I find if I go in that direction far from home?", or, "I wonder what's under that rock?" Isn't this the essence of a child's curiosity? Isn't this fundamentally who we are?

Note that the child after lifting one rock and finding a brave new world beneath it, will then run to every rock in sight and lift them all. That's what is written in our genes, not the need to lift a specific rock over there.

In terms of human space flight, we've done a terrible job of lifting lots of rocks. Since the end of the Apollo era, we've concentrated on this one lone rock really close to us out of convenience, and then hit it with everything we had. As a grad student in astrophysics in the late 1980s, I remember attending a meeting of the Planetary Sciences Division of the American Astronomical Society, where we had an official briefing on plans for the International Space Station (then called Space Station Freedom). The planetary community saw no benefits from ISS. The briefer clearly knew this in advance. His approach to the community? "You're going to get the space station whether you like it or not so you might as well figure out what you're going to do with it." Back then it sounded like strategic planning from some alternate universe, and now the current perception that NASA has helped create is let's get the damn thing built quick, give it a few years, and then let it burn over the ocean. It's strategic planning in the absurd, and Americans should be downright angry that this is what transpired after the monumental national achievements of the Apollo era.

While the great debate in human space flight has raged for decades, and still rages on, America's' robotic exploration of the Solar System has been magnificent, lifting one rock after another. Right now you can eavesdrop on Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars, and Cassini in orbit around Saturn more than 750 million miles (1.2 billion km) away. Go to their web sites and see the 'rocks' they've been lifting. We've visited planets with dozens of flyby spacecraft, orbiters, landers and rovers; slammed a spacecraft into a comet just to see what happened (we learned a great deal); and even orbited then landed on an asteroid. Four spacecraft are now beyond Pluto with greetings from Earth aboard. New Horizons is speeding toward a rendezvous with Pluto in 2015. MESSENGER encounters Mercury for a third time this Fall (September 29), and goes into orbit in 2011. Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter entered lunar orbit on June 23, and on October 9, the LCROSS spacecraft will explore whether a rocket impact at the Moon's south pole will reveal the presence of water.

Gosh, we've been living the adventure on the robotic side for decades. It has been a space odyssey so very true to our genes, and as Americans we should be terribly proud.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am passionate about human space flight. I believe the idea of extending a human presence beyond Earth is the stuff that inspires a generation in ways that robotic exploration cannot. Look at Apollo. But I absolutely agree with Crawley and Greason. It is high time that we lay down a fundamental, bedrock, strategic plan for human space flight that captures what we humans are truly about. We need to venture ... out there, and in concert with our robots lift some rocks with human hands. And if you want practical, from a science and engineering vantage point humans add enormous capability to the tasks at hand. Cornell's Steve Squyres, the Principal Investigator on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Project, said it best when asked about the benefits of humans. He feels humans could do in a minute what his rovers can do in a day.

I truly hope the panel puts forth strategic options that are built on Crawley's and Greason's views. But after yesterday's public deliberations, the current budget constraints appear to rule out any option -- including the current NASA strategic trajectory.

It now appears that the Obama Administration will be handed a fundamental question -- will America re-affirm a commitment to a strong human space flight program, requiring a significant increase in budget regardless of option? I believe that it must. I also believe that the program must fundamentally embrace Crawley's and Greason's views -- an approach that doesn't put all our budgetary eggs in one destination basket, and that doesn't relegate successful missions to a future so distant that our children will be middle-aged before they see it happen.

This is cross-posted at Blog on the Universe where there are links to other resources on human space flight and the nature of exploration.

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