The Next Giant Leaps in Space Exploration

author: John P. Holdren, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
author: Ian A. Waitz, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Michael Bair, Boeing Commercial Airplanes
author: David Danielson, Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
author: Alan H. Epstein, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Lourdes Q. Maurice, Propulsion and Power Systems Alliance, NASA
published: March 15, 2013,   recorded: June 2009,   views: 2734

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From satellite-enabled radio and TV to climate tracking, space has become a “ubiquitous capability in our lifetime,” as Edward Crawley puts it. But he also notes there is uncertainty about the future of U.S. spaceflight, which closely follows the “cadence” of political elections. AeroAstro symposium panelists both predict and suggest directions the nation’s public and private space programs might take.

As a child, keynote speaker Maria Zuber “wrote long letters to the Apollo astronauts,” and her early enthusiasm never waned. A geophysicist involved in missions investigating distant worlds, Zuber’s take on space exploration is both pragmatic and adventurous. She seeks “an achievable future in space,” with an exploration program that is “reality based.” She advocates a “bold, diverse agenda” that includes extended use of the International Space Station for conducting science on human physiology and behavior; exploring the impact of the sun on Earth climate and space weather; gathering data on the constitution of the universe; detailed characterization of terrestrial planets; a renewed commitment to Earth observation (we have better data on Mars’ ice caps than on our own); and seeking extra-terrestrial life.

This ambitious portfolio means we may send humans to space for “objectives that are worth the risk.” NASA should mix big and small missions, remembering that it’s “crucial to inspire and train the next generation.” Ultimately, says Zuber, “It’s great to be a dreamer, but the only good space mission is one that really works, and is practical and implementable.”

NASA scientist James Garvin describes his agency’s plans to pursue the legacy of Apollo, by developing new capabilities to carry people into space, and supporting significant research, such as tracking carbon in Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Says Garvin, “Somewhere there is a sweet spot between robotic spaceflight that does grand science ... and human spaceflight that enables those” missions.

The private space industry will play an increasing role in fulfilling the spaceflight dreams of ordinary people, believes Richard Garriott, one of the few lucky citizens to take the ride (via a Soyuz craft). He cites the surge in space plane companies, which may ultimately make spaceflight routine. While there’s “a reasonable probability there will be fatalities,” Garriott accepts the risks. “Ultimately only by democratizing access to space, by having multiple vendors competing to keep the price down, and safety up, will we ultimately find the best access to space.”

To engage American youth in space exploration, Erika Wagner says we “need to take back the storyline and discuss challenging things.” 18-24 year olds are not captivated by the Apollo mission to the moon, and to inspire them about the future, they need to understand we “go to space because it’s a difficult thing.” To get this point across means using social media such as Flickr and YouTube, as well as flying students into space. “It’s time for space exploration to become interactive again.”

Commercial space ventures, built on a series of incremental improvements, have become a phenomenally successful industry in the last 40 years, says David Thompson. Customers spend between $15-25 per month on such products and services as direct broadcast TV and handheld satellite navigators. This dwarfs the per capita expenditure on government space exploration or defense activities. Thompson looks for more of an intersection between the well-financed commercial, and needier public, sectors of space enterprise, with anticipated benefits for both.

The problem is not how we build space vehicles, “but how we procure them,” states James Crocker. Purchasing and launching such expensive devices one at a time continues to inhibit capability. Crocker’s company, Lockheed, is trying to economize through smarter software, weight- and volume-reduction of space-bound technology, and reuse of expensive parts (including some avionics in NASA’s new Ares rocket). He hopes that innovative ways to bring down costs “while not as cheap as flying from here to Europe on an airliner,” might get to the point where “we can do more with the dollars the public is willing to spend.”

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