09 Apr Message from Buzz regarding the upcoming Space Conference
What we can achieve at the President’s Space Conference
By Buzz Aldrin
Since the release of President Obama’s FY2011 NASA budget, the debate over America’s future course in space has become unusually heated, resulting in a polarization of views that has divided Congress and many members of the space community. All want what is best for our nation, but few see a chance at a consensus that can bring us all together. Soon, President Obama will visit the Kennedy Space Center to air these views in what the White House is calling a space conference. This meeting offers the Administration, Congress, and the American people our best – and possibly our only – chance to reach such a consensus to move forward in a reasonable way that builds on the President’s budget proposal while extending our reach ever deeper into space.
As I have said before, I agree broadly with the President’s plan, for it contains many elements that I have advocated for years. These include a flexible path for exploration with a robust technology development program that enables the extension of the human presence to Mars, avoids rerunning the moon race America won 40 years ago, and opens a new era for commercial space transportation, after years of government dominance of access to low Earth orbit.
These are good principles to be sure. But like many, I feel that the budget lacks key details. I encourage the President to clarify these details if he wants to gain the support of the Congress and indeed the American people. First, I think that he needs to be clear that Mars is the ultimate goal of this program. There will be key stops along the way in the region of the Moon, fly-by of comets, approaches to near Earth objects, asteroids, and finally crew landings on the Martian moon Phobos before the first humans set foot on Mars. This flexible path will create the infrastructure and transportation systems which will enable the commercial and international development of the Moon and perhaps exploitation of other Near Earth Objects.
I also believe that the NASA should be clearer about the purpose behind technology investments. For example, we can utilize the investments made in the Orion spacecraft to jump-start the development of a human deep space exploration capability. Using the spare hardware left over from the assembly of the International Space Station, I propose we commit to the cost-effective development of a prototype deep space exploration vehicle that can be docked to and tested at the station. Over time, astronauts at the station can outfit the ship, making it capable of forays beyond low Earth orbit, around the moon, then deeper into space – to near Earth orbit crossing asteroids, and on to Mars. I also encourage the President to set a clear goal to develop the heavy lift capability needed for our journey to Mars. There are, in effect, placeholders for these programs in the more than $20 billion devoted to technology development in President’s budget, but I think we deserve a greater level of clarity.
While transitioning the operation of crew delivery to private industry, it is important that the system we develop is truly capable of enabling broader commercial markets. To do this, the future plan should include the development of a reusable, space plane-like runway lander as the next generation of crew-carrying space transport. Once operational, I believe it should be flown and maintained by commercial industry.
I also differ with the President’s plan in a few important ways. First and most immediately, we must extend the Space Shuttle to continue flying. Second, we should build off of the Shuttle infrastructure and workforce to initiate development of a heavy lift launch vehicle adapted from the well-proven Shuttle technology. We should make the development of that heavy lift launcher a national priority.
A heavy lift vehicle with Mars as our destination – reachable through a series of interim steps each taking us deeper into space – and a space taxi that is optimized for the commercial users of the space station it is to service – can be, along with the other elements of the President’s budget, a solid basis for the civil space program for decades to come.
These additions to the President’s plan offer us the chance at a middle ground that preserves our highly specialized workforce, maintains critical access to space, assures us the ability to maintain and service the International Space Station, preserves the shuttle system’s production capabilities needed for a shuttle derived heavy lift launch system, and re-establishes American space leadership by the challenging goal of humans to Mars.
America’s future in space is worth the modest, additional investment that will be required by this flexible path.
I hope that, as passions cool, we can all come together at the conference to bring our nation fully into a 21st Century space program, one that is, as my friend Norm Augustine put it in his committee report, “worthy of a great nation”.