Recently NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver made a speech to the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics on what she termed “the next fifty years in space.” The address was primarily a defense of the controversial Obama space policy.
Beyond some of the soaring rhetoric and some good, but vague wordage about the roles of commercial space and NASA, one could not help but notice how tinny and small the Garver, which is to say the Obama, vision of the next fifty years in space really is.
“So what will these capabilities allow us to do in 50 years? We envision robotic and human explorers traveling throughout the solar system and ultimately into interstellar space; the identification of life on other planets and Earth-like worlds around other stars; an Earth observation system that can accurately forecast the emergence of major storms and natural disasters; and a commercial spaceflight industry at least to LEO and contributing substantially to solving our Nation’s technological needs.
“Over the coming decades, NASA is determined to work with people everywhere to achieve a sustained presence for human explorers beyond Earth (we now have had such a presence for over 10 years). Continued and expanded exploration for space with humans will drive prosperity on Earth through innovations and technologies not even imagined today. We will work to open near-Earth space to many more people, so humans can experience the adventure of visiting, living and working in space. Through our exploration endeavors we will expand our economic sphere, enabling new businesses, expand our minds through exciting scientific discoveries, and expand our imaginations by going where, dare I say, ‘no one has gone before.’
“In the next 50 years we truly hope to witness the first boots on Mars, fulfilling the dreams of generations who have come before. We will finally answer the key scientific question about Mars – is there life on our planetary neighbor? And even if we find no indigenous Martians, as our first astronaut shakes the red soil from her boots, she will prove once and for all that humans are meant to explore.”
The rest consists of talk of robotic missions and such, of interest to scientists, and some more vague verbiage about commercial space.
The idea of human explorers going to Mars sounds certainly exciting, except when one considers in the Obama/Garver vision of the future, no one will be actually living in space beyond Low Earth Orbit. For anyone who has witnessed the history of the space age, that vision is something of a letdown.
Consider, when the Apollo program first send human explorers to the Moon, many thought those first expeditions would be just the start of a great new age in which explorers would be followed by settlers, making the Moon, and then the other worlds like Mars into centers of commerce and science, expanding human civilization across the Solar System.
But there was no will to follow the success of Apollo with a permanent settlement. The first great age of human space exploration died in December, 1972. No one has been back to the Moon since. Under the Obama/Garver vision, no one will be back, especially if she or he is an American, for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in his speech at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15th, 2010, President Obama specifically derided and ridiculed the idea of returning to the Moon. A jaunt or two to an asteroid, sure, sometime in a decade or two. Maybe even Mars, eventually, in the fullness of time. But nothing will be done that will smack of people going to actual places to stay.
The reason that this type of space vision haunts people is that one can very well imagine astronauts landing on Mars, raising a flag (or likely several since it will be an international mission), planting experiments, collecting rock and soil samples, and then returning, leaving the Red Planet pretty much as it was found. Then, having gone to Mars, Earth humans, as with Apollo on the Moon, will turn their attention to other things.
That is, in essence, what makes the Obama/Garver vision of the next fifty years in space so narrow and limited. There is no sense that people are going to be living anywhere except maybe in commercial space stations orbiting the Earth.
Barely mentioned, for example, is the nearest place in our Solar System where significant numbers of humans can live, the Earth’s Moon, a place where Barack Obama has declared off limits to American astronauts.
The Moon is an ideal place for the first human settlement. Recent space probes have suggested that there is plenty of water on the Moon, mostly trapped in permanently shadowed craters at the lunar poles. Water can helped sustain a settlement. Water can be separated into hydrogen and oxygen and be used to fuel space craft headed deeper into the Solar System, sustaining a real program of exploration and, eventually, settlement of places like Mars.
The prospect of mining helium 3 to fuel future fusion reactors and using lunar materials to build space based solar power station makes the Moon a potential commercial gold reserve, perhaps on the level of the Persian Gulf in the 20th Century. The Moon is also strategically placed to control access to the rest of the Solar System and even as an impregnable platform to strike at targets in low Earth orbit or even on the Earth’s surface. It’s possession by an enemy would create an incalculable danger.
So why does President Obama and, presumably, Lori Garver so disdain the Moon as a destination and as a venue for human settlement? Is it just because the return to the Moon was George Bush’s program? It is because the Moon was granddaddy’s space program, a rich idea coming from an administration whose economic policy comes from the 1930s.
Or is it something more sinister? Perhaps the President and his people so disdain American exceptionalism and power that they will avoid anything, at all cost, that would tend to enhance both. The asteroids and Mars are scheduled so far in the future that one cannot trust this administration to be serious about either.
But the Moon can be reached within a decade, perhaps at the end of the term of the next President. That means immediate commitment made, immediate money spent, immediate hardware bent. Such are the indications of an administration’s seriousness about doing space. Such are what this administration seeks to avoid.
Under the Obama/Garver vision, by 2060, a little more than a hundred years after the beginning of the space age, the Moon will be either as silent and devoid of life as ever or else in the hands of some other country or coalition of countries. Mars may have been visited by human beings at one time, but will also be still and lifeless. No one will even think about going beyond.
What tiny, narrow, joyless minds could bring forth that kind of future, where space beyond low Earth orbit is reserved for a few explorers, human and robotic? How sad it will be if something better is not summoned instead by bolder, more visionary people.
Source: Prepared Remarks at AIAA Space 2010 By NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, SpaceRef, August 31st, 2010