12 April 2010
Column - Habitat (None)
Where Next for Space - The Asimov Debate
Hayden seek
by Peter Wainwright
Last month's Issac Asimov Memorial Debate, hosted as usual by Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson, tackled a subject close to Space Future's heart – the future of manned spaceflight. Or, to be strictly accurate, “The Moon, Mars, and Beyond: Where next for the manned spaced program?”

The debate was scheduled before, but took place after, the release of the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (a.k.a. the Augustine Commission) report, with its provisions for commercial spaceflight. Perhaps that’s why there were no space entrepreneurs on the panel.

The curious thing about the debate was that the key element of this new direction – the development of a true private spaceflight industry – barely got a mention at all. The only panelist to do so, other than Tyson in his opening remarks, was Steven Squyers,
scientific principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover mission.

Everyone else discussed where the next manned program should go, since the last one (Constellation) has just been unceremoniously dumped, much to the consternation of those championing a return to the Moon.

Of course, that was the right decision even if you do want to see a return to the Moon (one that goes beyond déjà vu), but it also misses the point entirely: the tacit assumption is that space development must be about programs to visit celestial bodies, to the point it's even built into the title of the debate.

It's as if Space Ship One never happened, that Bigelow Aerospace doesn't have, right now, two privately launched space stations in Earth Orbit (Genesis I and Genesis II). That both were done at a fraction of the cost of the canceled Constellation/Ares program isn't even the point here…it's that they never even came up in the conversation at all.

This isn't even a limitation in thinking that space must be a program – as the Space Frontier Foundation likes to remind us, “space is a place, not a program” -- though it certainly is that too. It's the idea that to make progress in space (whatever kind of progress you care to define it as) involves developing technologies to reach the Moon, or Mars, or an asteroid, but only that, and (also implicit) only with a few government employees.

The assumption is that there will be technologies developed in the process, but it’s not a development of space.

The argument from those who argue for the Moon, or Mars, or even asteroids, as a target to reach, is that it provides a rallying cry, a point of focus, and the marketable vision necessary to justify billions in spending to a skeptical public for whom the novelty of Teflon has long worn off.

But why does NASA's objective have to be a destination at all? Is that really the only kind of achievement that can stimulate the imagination? Space Future has been arguing for years that space tourism is far more powerful a stimulant to the imagination than sending more canned Right Stuff to the Red Planet. There's more than enough market research and public surveys by this point to demonstrate that point.

Get to low Earth orbit ( LEO), as Robert Heinlein observed and G Harry Stine popularized, and you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system. Build some infrastructure there, and you no longer have to solve the dual problems of getting off our planet's surface and then getting to whatever destination you have in mind in a single vehicle. You can assemble and launch smaller craft from orbit, and as a bonus you can use reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) to ship the components up and avoid – or at least dramatically reduce the chance -- the embarrassing possibility of the launch vehicle turning into a firework halfway up. Plus it'll save a fortune on the insurance.

In LEO you can build a space economy, starting with space tourism, and expanding into every other space industry, including launching space vehicles. You can do it sustainably, and dare we say it, profitably. And everyone gets what they want, or at least halfway to getting it.

Very shortly, President Obama will make a speech outlining what his new direction for NASA really means. He’ll have to answer his critics who claim that NASA needs a goal if it is to achieve anything substantial. That’s a valid point of view, and it’s certainly easy to envision an expensive lack of progress on the agency’s part without some clear direction.

But a goal doesn’t necessarily have to mean a destination.

In the end, the problem is that the wrong end of the stick is being addressed: it's not where you go next, it's who gets to do it. Built into the thinking of debates like this is that, if a handful of space agency astronauts are obviously traveling, therefore the next question must be where to send them to.

That's entirely backwards. The right destination is already known to private enterprise: orbit. The next step is to send everyone else there who wants to go. And, eventually, enable them to stay there.
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Peter Wainwright 12 April 2010
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