NRC Endorses Return to Lunar Surface, Cooperation with China, No More Business As Usual

NRC Endorses Return to Lunar Surface, Cooperation with China, No More Business As Usual

The National Research Council (NRC) released its report on the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program today.  Just over 18 months in the making, its 285 pages contain a multitude of findings and recommendations difficult to distill in a few paragraphs.  The bottom line is that sending people to Mars is the “horizon goal” not just for the United States but its likely international partners. It will take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars to get there, so if people aren’t willing to make that commitment, the report cautions, don’t start down that road.

The report, Pathways to Exploration—Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, responds to a charge from Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to examine the rationales that underpin human exploration, articulate its “value proposition” – what the public believes it gets out of human spaceflight versus what they put into it monetarily, and evaluate options – “pathways” – for moving beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).

Congress required NASA to contract with the NRC for the study in FY2012, rather than when the bill was signed into law in 2010.   Consequently, the study did not start until late in FY2012 and the committee’s first meeting was in December 2012.  The committee was co-chaired by Cornell space scientist Jonathan Lunine and Purdue University President (and former Indiana Governor) Mitch Daniels.

To pick just three of its key findings and recommendations, the report supports —

  • a return to the lunar surface as part of any program to take humans to Mars for a multitude of reasons, including aligning U.S. near-term goals with those of potential international and commercial partners,
  • bringing China into the U.S. “sphere of international partnerships,”  and
  • increasing NASA’s human spaceflight budget at more than the rate of inflation over many years if sending humans to Mars is, in fact, to be achieved.

The study is candid about many of the issues it tackles.  For example, the committee is the first to admit that it breaks no new ground on the question of rationales for supporting human spaceflight.  “All of the arguments the committee heard … have been used in various forms and combinations to justify the program for many years.”   The committee divided those rationales into “pragmatic” and “aspirational,” but the bottom line is that “No single rationale alone seems to justify the value of pursuing human spaceflight.”

The committee and one of its two supporting panels included experts on public opinion polling who reviewed past public opinion polls and conducted one of their own on attitudes towards human spaceflight.  Their conclusion is that although the public likes human spaceflight and NASA, it is not very interested and does not support more funding.  “Americans have continued to fly into space not so much because the public strongly wants it to be so, but because the counterfactual – space exploration dominated by the vehicles and astronauts of other nations – seems unthinkable after 50 years of U.S. leadership in space.”

The report identifies Mars as the long term “horizon goal” for human spaceflight and lists three potential pathways to get there.  Although the committee emphasizes that it was not asked to, and did not, choose among those pathways, it unambiguously conveys that returning to the lunar surface should be part of the plan:

While this report’s recommendation for adoption of a pathways approach is made without prejudice as to which particular pathway might be followed, it was, nevertheless,  clear … that a return to extended surface operations on the Moon would make significant contributions to a strategy ultimately aimed at landing people on Mars and … is also likely to provide a broad array of opportunities for international and commercial cooperation.”

Among the benefits of reinstating lunar surface operations, the committee noted, is that it would align U.S. near-term goals with those of potential international partners who are focusing their own plans on lunar missions.

The committee was frank in addressing the hot button issue of whether China should be part of any international partnership, concluding that existing law that prohibits NASA from talking with China is not in the best interests of the United States:

It is … evident that given the rapid development of China’s capabilities in space, it is in the best interests of the United States to be open to its inclusion in future international partnerships.  In particular, current federal law preventing NASA from participating in bilateral activities with the Chinese serves only to hinder U.S. ability to bring China into its sphere of international partnerships and reduces substantially the potential international capability that might be pooled to reach Mars.”

The committee is not sanguine about NASA’s current “program of record” for building the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft and using them for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) within a projected flat budget: “The current program … cannot provide the flight frequency required to maintain competence and safety, does not possess the ‘stepping-stone’ architecture that allows the public to see the connection between the horizon goal and near-term accomplishments, and may discourage international partners.”   It is even more blunt about ARM saying it “has failed to engender substantial enthusiasm either in the Congress or the scientific community.”

Costs for sending people to Mars using any of the committee’s pathways are not spelled out in detail.  Instead, costs are dealt with by offering order of magnitude comparisons that result in a range roughly of $300-600 billion over several decades.   The report does say that a program costing $400 billion would allow humans to land on Mars around 2060.  To land on Mars prior to 2050, a technically feasible pathway costing no more than $220 billion would need to be developed.  “Barring unforeseen significant budget increases, significant increases in operational efficiency, or technological game changers, progress towards deep space destinations will be measured on time scales of decades.  Policy goals that state shorter time horizons cannot change this reality.” (emphasis in original)

The report offers pathway principles and decision rules for implementing them, although the decision rules seem difficult to implement.  The NRC only recently began providing decision rules to NASA in its Decadal Surveys for space science programs on what to do with recommended priorities if there is more or less funding than expected. Developing decision rules for a human spaceflight program is harder since it is less a matter of choosing one scientific objective over another than moving out in a series of steps that build upon one another.

Other takeaways include the following: 

  • The International Space Station (ISS) presents a conundrum.  It is needed to conduct research on human adaption to long duration spaceflight as a prerequisite to Mars exploration, but its high operating costs reduce the funding available for those very missions.
  • Investments in technology need to begin immediately.  The top three are:  Mars entry, descent and landing; in-space propulsion and power; and radiation safety. 

The official time frame for the study was out to the year 2030, but to achieve the goal of landing on Mars, the committee pushed the time envelope out to the middle of the decade.  In a tantalizing twist, the report acknowledges that in the course of those decades scientific and technological advances could change everything:

Breakthroughs … could serve to solve many of the large obstacles…. In particular, the line between the human and the robotic may be blurred more profoundly than simple linear extrapolations predict.  In such an eventuality, exploration of the ‘last frontier’ of space might well occur in a more rapid and far-reaching way than is envisioned in this report; indeed, whether it would still be accurately described as ‘human exploration’ is unknowable.”

Perhaps the most prominent message is that business as usual will not get us to Mars.   Budgets have to grow and Washington politics surrounding the human spaceflight program must change.  Any pathway that is chosen will fail if it is not appropriately funded or “without a sustained commitment on the part of those who govern the nation—a commitment that does not change direction with succeeding electoral cycles.  Those branches of government responsible for NASA’s funding and guidance are therefore critical enablers of the nation’s investment and achievements in human spaceflight.”

The NRC report is frank, if not bleak, about the challenges of maintaining support over the long term.  It may be worth noting, however, that long term human spaceflight programs are not impossible.  The International Space Station program is 30 years old this year – it began with President Reagan’s State of the Union address in 1984.   That’s 15 congresses and five presidential administrations, from Reagan to Obama, and it will continue for another 10 years if NASA gets its way. The space shuttle program began in 1972 and ended just shy of 40 years later in 2011, over seven presidential administrations (Nixon to Obama).  Both programs suffered substantial cost overruns and schedule slips that have been largely forgotten with the passage of time.

Sending humans to Mars is another multi-decade proposition, but shuttle and ISS prove that it is possible to maintain financial and political support in the United States, at least, over a long period of time.   The NRC is the latest in a long series of reports over many decades intended to galvanize support for the next bold leap in human spaceflight.  Perhaps this will be the one that succeeds.

The report is available on the NRC’s website.  An NRC video interview with the two co-chairs is available on YouTube.  NASA’s brief preliminary response was issued as a press release.

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