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Bold New Vision is Needed at NASA


Gordon Rowlinson

NASA has been in a funk lately. Due to the early retirement of the safety-troubled Space Shuttle program, there has been a five year gap between the Space Shuttle and the Orion program. This has meant that NASA has to rely on Russian boosters to transport our astronauts to the international space station. Due to tensions in Crimea, Russia has now cut off the United States from sharing rides and the US is currently shut out of space.

Another factor in the funk is the lack of manned exploration missions. There have been many NASA scientific successes since the last Apollo moon landing in 1972. The Voyager deep space spacecraft, the Hubble telescope and the robot rovers on Mars are amazing scientific accomplishments. However all these successes pale in comparison of manned spaceflight and the Apollo historic moon missions.

That will all soon end. In December of this year, NASA has rescheduled the first test flights of Orion, a space vehicle designed for deep space missions. Orion is the deep space vehicle of the future. In 2010, President Obama outlined the basic plan for America's return to space exploration. “Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit and by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crewed mission beyond the moon into deep space. So, we'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.”

President Obama's statement is a good start. However a more visionary goal statement and much more long range planning is needed. Why not make a President Kennedy-like statement and declare a date that we will land a man on Mars? In addition, there is much long range planning and development of new technologies needed to back up such a bold goal statement.

Astronaut and American hero, Buzz Aldrin outlines such a visionary plan in his recent (2013) book Mission to Mars. Aldrin's Unified Space Vision is to: rely on private companies to shuttle crews to the international space station; have NASA concentrate on deep space exploration; switch to reusable boosters; partner with other countries to share costs and establishment of a new think tank, the Untied Strategic Space Enterprise.

Aldrin provides a quick list of the logical necessary technological developments required to move outward into deep space: aerocapture; improved radiation protection; life support; redundant systems; inflatable structures; landing systems. Aerocapture is a technique used to reduce the velocity of a space craft into orbit around a planet or a moon by using that object's atmosphere like a brake. This technique was a SciFi concept in the Arthur C Clarke's novel 2010. Aldrin also sees the need to improve knowledge of radiation protection from solar particles and cosmic rays. This was a SciFi idea in the Robert Silverberg novel Starborne. Aldrin also recognizes the need for improved life support systems that maximize self-sufficiency and minimize the need for resupply of vital consumable such as air, water, and food. These ideas were SciFi concepts used in Alan Dean Foster's novel Alien. Aldrin also recognizes the importance of redundant systems. In case of mechanical or software failure in deep space, backup systems and procedures must compensate. This idea was a SciFi concept in Arthur C Clarke's novel Songs of Distant Earth. Other technologies that should be improved are inflatable structures used for crew habitats. Pre-plumbed and ready-for-integration habitats can be designed to offer multiple compartments. This idea was a SciFi concept in Arthur C Clarke's novel A Fall of Moondust. Lastly, as there is a need for delivery of heavier payloads on Mars, there is the need to improve the ability to land on a variety of of planetary locales and with more precision. Precision landings are in so many SciFi novels and films it is impossible to mention them all.

The coming Orion spacecraft means that NASA is returning to deep space manned exploration. It is time to turn SciFi ideas into reality. It is time for a bold, visionary statement of our goals and bold, visionary long range planning to accomplish those goals. It's time to dream again.

Your comments below are welcome.

2014-08-14 23:25:03
Ironspider - I've always hoped that Mankind's sense of wonder - and the urge to explore - were inherent traits and not subject to financial constraint. But brutal reality means that governments, and their agencies, have to operate within a budget. Perhaps the likes of NASA and the ESA have had their day and it's now down to corporations to carry space development into the future. And it troubles me that the only sector of government that seems to suffer less from budgetary constraint is the military. I'd hate to see the race to Mars being dictated by fear, rather than wonder.

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