Thursday, January 26, 2012

Newt’s Bold Space Proposals 


While campaigning for the Florida Primary vote, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich announced on January 25 some bold proposals for accelerating our nation's space activities. These include establishing a permanent lunar base by 2020 (what would be the end of his second term if he wins the 2012 and 2016 elections), developing a new means of propulsion in the same period in preparation for missions to Mars and dedicating 10% of NASA’s budget to offering prizes for development of new space technological capabilities.

Putting aside all the political issues surrounding Gingrich and the current campaign, the question to address here is whether these proposals are realistic, especially given the severe constraints on spending due to the national debt. These initiatives are definitely bold, but as Gingrich pointed out, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to reach the moon within a decade at a time when the only experience in human spaceflight was Yuri Gagarin’s single orbit of the Earth and Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight.

The proposal to devote 10% of NASA’s budget to incentive prizes would be a major expansion of the smaller NASA's Centennial Challenges program already offering prizes. Some of the technologies addressed by this program including lunar lander demonstrations, lunar regolith (soil) excavation and astronaut glove designs would be useful to any return to the Moon to stay effort.

The establishment of even a small lunar base by 2020 would greatly accelerate the schedule currently projected by NASA and would seem to require a large increase in spending, a difficult case to make in this current economic and political environment. As Gingrich himself says, this initiative would not be practical doing business as usual at NASA and other government agencies. But some things are already starting to change in the space industry, including NASA’s move to rely on commercial transportation services to carry crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Cargo deliveries by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation are set to begin later this year and several companies are vying to provide crew transportation for NASA starting around the middle of the decade. Gingrich did say in his speech that it would be necessary to be "practical" by, for example, using existing rockets such as the Atlas V in the effort. These rockets are not as powerful as the Space Launch System (SLS) now starting to be developed by NASA (under mandate of Congress). But the SLS would not be available until late in the decade at best and would probably be very expensive to operate, given that a smaller number of these large rockets would be procured.

Leading NASA and industry experts are already developing innovative strategies to enable humans to operate beyond Earth orbit and in the lunar vicinity within a few years, including use of small way stations in gravitationally stable points in cis-lunar space (the region of space surrounding the Earth and the Moon). Some of these architectures could make use of existing rockets including Atlas V, Delta IV and Falcon 9. The development of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (which will have an advertised capability of launching 53 mT (117,000 lb) to low Earth orbit at competitive prices when it becomes available in 2013) will allow some more flexibility to launch larger payloads in support of a lunar effort. The commercial sector could be engaged to use these rockets to deliver hardware to establish a pioneering lunar base to the Moon prior to the arrival of the first lunar crew. That hardware would include equipment to utilize resources existing on the Moon to further develop and expand the facility.

Beyond innovative technical and operational solutions and increased reliance on the commercial sector, establishing a lunar base by 2020 will require forgoing the bureaucratic management style that has dominated government space efforts for the past few decades and a willingness to accept more risk to mission success and adopting greater flexibility in responding to and overcoming failures.

The Gingrich proposal to develop new propulsion technology to enable faster trips to Mars may sound like science fiction, and politicians have been known to try to wish new technologies into existence by throwing taxpayers’ money at them. However, alternative propulsion technologies have been developed and tested to varying levels. Advanced ground testing of nuclear rocket engines was accomplished in the sixties and early seventies before the program was cancelled. Gingrich may have had in mind a program currently under development by the Ad Astra Company called Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). A prototype is to be tested at the ISS possibly as early as 2014. VASIMR’s designers claim it would reduce travel time to Mars from months to around 39 days. With some additional focused funding, this or a similar technology might become operational around 2020.

Admittedly, this is a very high level analysis without hard numbers, but it would seem that with some fundamental innovations and changes in the way we do business in space, Newt Gingrich’s bold proposals could be achievable, though challenging, under a constrained budget.

For society to undertake this kind of adventure and to accept the risks involved, there needs to be a clear case to be made as for why we should move into this frontier. I’ll make two points very briefly. In the near term, we need to spur new industries to grow our economy to create more jobs and reduce our debt. Space industries, along with biotechnology, information technology and nanotechnology are new industries that can help expand our economy.

Looking to the longer term, we have an obligation and a privilege to expand in order to provide for future generations. Accessing the resources of space to provide for a growing population of human persons is a positive approach to the future. This differs from the Malthusian world view that has been ascendant in our culture in recent times that undermines the dignity of human life and liberty through coercive population control policies that have also distorted the demographic structures of societies around the world.

Expansion into space means some will chose to seek opportunity by settling places beyond Earth. Gingrich addressed this idea by recalling his proposed legislation to grant statehood to a lunar settlement of 13,000 or more residents should they apply. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits national claims on celestial bodies, but it may not be clear how it would address a settlement population applying for annexation. Then again, the people living at a lunar settlement might choose to take their cue from our nation's Founding Fathers and from Robert Heinlein’s novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and declare their independence. The future is full of possibilities.

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Declaring independence is the only legal option at the moment because of UN treated and agreements, and because of the current framework of international rules.

This should be changed, but changing it may be a tougher proposition than getting 13,000 people to the Moon.

(All hail the Lunar Republic!)
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