December 03, 2003, 8:58 a.m.
Milky Way Days
Returning to the new frontier.
By Dennis E. Powell
When President Bush delivers a speech recognizing the centenary of heavier-than-air-powered flight December 17, it is expected that he will proffer a bold vision of renewed space flight, with at its center a return to the moon, perhaps even establishment of a permanent presence there. If he does, it will mean that he has decided the United States should once again become a space-faring nation. For more than 30 years America's manned space program has limited itself to low Earth orbit; indeed, everyone under the age of 31 — more than 125 million Americans — was born since an American last set foot on the moon.
The speech will come at a time when events are converging to force some important decisions about the future of American efforts in space. China has put a man in orbit, plans a launch of three Sinonauts together, and has announced its own lunar program. The space shuttle is grounded, and its smaller sibling, the "orbital space plane," may not be built. The International Space Station, behind schedule, over budget, and of limited utility, has been scaled back post-Columbia.
The content of the speech does not appear to be in doubt; the only question is timing. While those who have formulated it have argued that it be delivered on the anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first powered flight, there exists a slight possibility that it will instead be incorporated in the State of the Union address at the end of January. This has its own, less triumphant, significance, which is in the form of a chilling coincidence. Every American who has died in a spacecraft has done so within one calendar week: The Apollo 204 fire on January 27, 1967; the Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986; and the loss of Columbia on February 1, 2003.
If the president goes ahead with the plan to announce an ambitious new program to carry Americans beyond Earth's immediate gravitational pull, he will argue that the new lunar explorations are justified not only for what they themselves might produce but also as a means of developing the technology and skills necessary for a mission to Mars, which is expected to be mentioned, though in less-specific terms, in the address.
Observers might note a familiar ring to the proposal. On July 20, 1989, President George H. W. Bush marked the 20th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing with a speech at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington in which he called for a permanent American presence on the moon and, ultimately, a mission to Mars.
That address led to the formation of a group called the "Space Exploration Initiative," headed by Vice President Quayle and NASA Administrator Richard Truly, which in the spring of 1991 released a report, "America at the Threshold." It set a long-term goal of landing Americans on Mars, with space activities in the interim leading up to that goal. First, it recommended, would be "Space Station Freedom" — now the ISS — followed by a return to the moon, in large measure to develop and test systems for keeping people alive on a Mars journey. The development of rocket boosters more powerful than the mighty Saturn V that lifted Apollo astronauts to the moon would be necessary, the report said, as would development of nuclear systems for providing power aboard in-transit spacecraft, and nuclear-powered rockets, to be employed outside Earth's atmosphere, where they could be used on long missions without the need to carry enormous supplies of conventional rocket propellant. None of the recommendations was carried out as envisioned at the time; the only one that got off the ground at all is the space station.
The president's speech could breathe new life into a moribund space program whose recent history has been beset by disappointment and failure. The space shuttle proved neither as reliable or as inexpensive as its proponents had promised. In 18 years of flight (the shuttle was grounded for 30 months following the Challenger disaster, and has been grounded since the loss of Columbia February 1), half of the original shuttle fleet has been lost to catastrophic failure, along with 14 astronauts. The cost of a shuttle mission has hovered around $500 million despite early claims that it would be much less and would allow payloads to be carried aloft for as little as $50 per pound. The launch schedule has been unreliable, with many space customers wondering if their satellites would ever get to orbit; in some cases satellites have remained on the ground so long that their power supplies ran down and had to be replaced before launch. The shuttle program has been so frustrating to scientists that it was characterized by Bruce Murray, former head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as "a giant WPA in the sky."
Some critics say the space station offers little or nothing more, with a far-higher price tag. It is "international" as to the origin of some of its parts and some of its crew and, while the shuttle is grounded, the craft used to ferry the maintenance crews and supplies, but most of it is paid for by the United States. Some critics have argued that it is less a space station than an extension of the State Department.
Charles Krauthammer has noted that an orbiting United Nations is unlikely to be any less foolish than one fixed on planet Earth. "The moon and Mars are beckoning," he wrote in January, 2000. "So why are we spending so much of our resources building a tinker-toy space station? In part because, a quarter-century late, we still need something to justify the shuttle. Yet the space station's purpose has shrunk to almost nothing. No one takes seriously its claims to be a platform for real science." Establishment of a permanent moon base and research and engineering work toward a flight to Mars would certainly replenish the idea of a space program engaged in real exploration.
Whether a return to the moon would spark the public's imagination as it did in the 1960s is unknown. The world was transfixed July 20, 1969, as Apollo 11 landed and Neil Armstrong became the first man to stand on a celestial body other than Earth. But public and political enthusiasm for the moon soon waned. There were five more landings; the final three lunar shots were canceled. The last moon flight was in December 1972. No human has achieved escape velocity since.
A new space initiative would face numerous hurdles, including congressional Democrats who in the present political climate would be likely to challenge a presidential declaration that the sky is blue. Additionally, congressional distrust of NASA is vigorous on both sides of the aisle following the Columbia accident. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R., N.Y.), and Rep. Ralph Hall, (D., Tex.), recently asked that NASA stop work on the $13 billion "orbital space plane," a smaller, cheaper space shuttle, until Congress and the president agree on NASA's goals. Others in Congress have argued that the space shuttle should remain on the ground permanently. The fact that a revamped space program would employ many people — especially in places such as Silicon Valley, where unemployment among engineers is high — might blunt much criticism, however.
There are ideas and proposals that could offset concerns as to the value of returning to the moon and, perhaps, traveling beyond. Geologists are eager to take lunar-core samples, which could tell much about the solar system's past and how the moon itself was formed. It has recently been suggested that sunlight collected on the moon and beamed to Earth could provide a no-pollution source of power. Bill McInnis, a leading NASA engineer before he resigned in despair over shuttle-safety issues and ultimately took his own life, long lobbied for a return to the moon and talked of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the folly of putting our antennae on Earth. "The signals we're looking for are so weak that the effects of somebody turning on a light a hundred miles away are stronger," he said. "The place to do it, the place to be free of Earthbound interference — that's the other side of the moon. The moon is the ultimate space station, it is where we can really learn things." Certainly, long-term lunar experience would facilitate a trip to Mars.
NASA's budget has been far short of lavish since the last time the agency was aiming for the moon. The president has remarked to members of the White House space group that he does not favor a huge increase in spending for NASA projects. Whether he has changed his mind, and the extent to which he is willing to sell an ambitious new program of space exploration remains to be seen. If Bush does deliver the speech as planned, it would be another opportunity for him to finish business left pending when his father left office a decade ago.
— Dennis E. Powell is a freelance writer, currently at work on a history of the space-shuttle program.