Giving NASA a chance

Human spaceflight is a project for all of humanity and we're going to introduce more international perspective.  Since Evadot is in the United States, we've asked Ricardo J. Tohmé  (from Argentina), Editor of AstroSpaceNow.com to give us his point of veiw on the NASA program as it stands today.

What seemed to be a never-ending week of speculations and rumors was finally brought to an end today, as the Office of Management and Budget of the White House made public their terminations, reductions and savings for fiscal year 2011. While the axing of the Constellation program, some sort of Apollo on steroids running over budget and behind schedule, was widely expected, opinions are now diverse -and polemical- on the new direction NASA will be taking in the next years.

Let's start by making something clear: the idea of returning to the Moon was dead on arrival. The Bush administration outlined it, but never really supported it from a political or financial standpoint. But let's go further back in time. We've had space shuttles going to low Earth orbit for almost 30 years now. It sounds like a pretty decent timeframe for developing a new generation of vehicles, adding capabilities and flexibility instead of taking some away. Instead, program after program was funded at first, then cancelled, with the results we all know: there's no replacement for the space shuttle. So basically, NASA was going to retire the shuttles and try to go back to the capsule concept. It's no wonder that many people see the cancellation of the Ares/Orion combo as an admission that the NASA of 2010 isn't up to what the NASA of the Apollo era was able to do.

Not being an United States citizen, I'll be totally honest: I don't really care about U.S. preeminence in space. All I want is for us, humankind as a race to finally get out of LEO, something we haven’t done for 38 long years.  I don't care if it's the U.S., China, Russia, Japan or India; I just want to see it happen. I wasn’t yet born the last time a human being ventured that far away, so now there’s a whole generation waiting for the kind of space exploration initiatives we were promised back when we were children. However, it would be stupid to neglect that no other country invests as heavily on space exploration as the United States, so we can be sure that rebooting the way NASA operates will send ripples across the rest of the spacefaring countries.

I'll go as far as saying that excluding patriotic pride, the only real justification to keep Constellation going was congressional pork. It is sad that 7,000 jobs could be lost because of the cancellation, but should keeping the jobs be the driving force behind the rationale of a space exploration agency? I would rather see those 7,000 working on a thriving private space industry.

In this context, the future prospects for NASA are open -and really interesting. Freed from the hardly exciting business of sending crews and cargo to the ISS and back, the agency will be be able to focus into real exploration. Let's face it, the whole manned spaceflight business has become risk-averse and the ISS airlocks are now the final frontier when it comes to human spaceflight. Every exploration-related initiative has been killed eventually: no Altair lunar lander or Ares V heavy launch vehicle hardware was ever going to be built under the current budget. Even the Centrifuge Accommodations Module, which would have produced varying levels of artificial gravity on the ISS, was cancelled.

If NASA can effectively reboot itself and starts working aggressively on cutting-edge areas like high-power electric propulsion (VASIMR, MPD and PIT could be the technologies that finally open up the solar system for us), radiation shielding (the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment on the ISS will give us important data on that, but it's not enough), inflatable habitats and closed-loop life support systems, we could get back on track in little more than a decade or two, which is not bad at all. In the meantime, with a growing number of entrepreneurs and companies involved in their own private space race in LEO, infrastructure like circumlunar space tugs and fuel depots on some of the Lagrange points would be in place to support the first human outings into deep space.

Obviously, serious questions linger: will a program with no specific exploration target set for its first years be able to gather steam and gain public support? Even more important: we can't expect results in a couple of years as it's a long-term approach, so will it survive a few administrations, enough for NASA to harvest the results? As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. For once, NASA is going to do its business in a different way, and I'm eager to see the results.

Ricardo J. Tohmé Editor, AstroSpaceNow.com