At the recent International Space Development Conference in Huntsville, Augustine committee member and CEO of XCOR Aerospace Jeff Greason gave a talk on the goals of human spaceflight. While he discussed many things that I agree with (in particular, making the use of off-planet resources a high priority), one idea in particular stood out. Greason said that we need some type of long-range goal or objective for our national civil space program. Picking up on a statement by his Augustine colleague Chris Chyba, Greason suggested that “settlement” should be the goal of human spaceflight; if not, “what the hell are we doing it for?”
This observation naturally went over well with the crowd at the ISDC and the subsequent posting of a video of Jeff’s talk sent many space cadets of the internet into spasms of joy that someone would finally state in public the True Belief – humanity’s destiny is among the stars. Finally, out of all the confusion and bickering about heavy lift launch vehicles, depots, destinations, and crew vehicles, we have at last a clear articulation of the direction and purpose for the human space program.
There’s only one problem: it’s not the right goal for NASA.
First, let there be no misunderstanding. I agree that settlement and the expansion of humanity into space is indeed a noble and desirable thing — I call it the “ultimate rationale” for human spaceflight. By that, I mean that the idea of people going into space to live there, wherever our desires and aspirations may lead, is an objective of our species, a desire to spread human culture beyond its planetary cradle into the cosmos. That’s a different concept than making space settlement the objective of NASA’s human spaceflight program. I do not think such is an appropriate goal for a federal program that competes with all the other projects in the discretionary budget.
To most outside space circles (as well as to a surprisingly sizable number within the space community), space is a hostile, barren wilderness, with no harbor for man and his works. Their solution is to build machines that can be sent to return information from which we will decipher the secrets of the universe. Moreover, these people can think of at least two dozen different things they would rather spend that money on; you can bet that dreams of space settlement would fare poorly in comparison.
Another problem with “settlement” as an objective is that the metrics for success are difficult to define. When is space “settled” – when a single human lives permanently off planet? When a community is thriving on another world? How large a community and where? Buying into settlement as our goal means making a permanently moving target your objective; no matter what milestone is reached, you’ve never actually achieved your “goal” of settlement (for a current implementation of this mentality, see “Search for Extraterrestrial Life”).
Finally, settlement is a poor goal for a federal space program because it is so distant. No one seriously believes that humans will live in space or on another world permanently within the next several decades. Government programs can barely tolerate time horizons beyond one presidential term, let alone a multi-decadal trek through near-space. True enough, we can devise a program that delivers significant milestones toward the goal of space settlement within such time frames, but with such a nebulous end point receding into the distant future, it will lose its luster and consequent political support very quickly.
In contrast to Greason’s proposed “settlement strategy,” I have tried to frame a slightly different path for our national space program. Our “goal” is to expand human reach beyond LEO, first into cislunar space and then into interplanetary space (by “reach,” I mean the routine access of people and machines to any point in space where we need or want these capabilities to do whatever job we need to.) The “strategy” to accomplish this extension is to establish a resource-processing base on the Moon to make fuel for a cislunar space transportation system. A “tactical” implementation of this strategy is a robotic ISRU architecture, which will create our first foothold on another world.
What is the advantage of this path over Greason’s settlement sequence? For one thing, we can accomplish it much sooner than human settlement of space will ever occur; an operational lunar resource processing base can be up and running within 10-20 years of program initiation. Second, a space faring transportation system is relevant to critical national needs, specifically, our ability to maintain and extend the constellation of economic, scientific, and national strategic satellite assets that reside in cislunar space. By adopting this goal, we start from a position of political strength: we don’t have to convince Congress about our destiny among the stars, we just have to point out the critical dependence of modern technological civilization on our satellite assets in the volume of space between LEO and the Moon. Right now, those satellites are all designed as one-offs: build, launch, use, and discard. We want to change that template to build, extend, maintain and expand. Developing lunar resources to fuel a space transportation system allows us to do this and more.
By doing these things we lay the groundwork for space settlement. All agree that settlement requires the ability to access and use local planetary resources. Going to the Moon to harvest its polar water begins that process. If you want to look upon this as the first step in the settlement of the Solar System, be my guest. But I suggest that making lunar return relevant to important national economic and security objectives is more likely to help consolidate political support than setting the goal of “settlement” as NASA’s objective. NASA’s founding charter, the Space Act of 1958, lays out many different objectives and goals for the agency; space settlement is not one of them. But routine access to cislunar space is; cislunar space is specifically mentioned in the new NASA Authorization Act of 2010.
Settlement is a valid long-term goal for humanity in space – but we must have something with a practical and political payoff in the near-term.