EVALUATION OF INITIATIVES
To this point, we have been considering four specific initiatives, each of which would, if adopted, provide leadership in a particular area of space endeavor. Now it is important to differentiate between an initiative and a strategy. A strategy provides an overall framework and direction; it identifies and prioritizes goals, and defines a course to attain them. An initiative should be an element of a strategy; a part, but only a part, of the larger picture. Initiatives would, of course, be best judged in the context of a strategy.
A process to define and evaluate candidate strategies for the civilian space program is being developed at NASA. This process will seek to identify possible strategies, then assess the likelihood of success and possible implications of each. They will be evaluated in relation to the existing and projected environment, and to the various conditions which may influence their success, such as:
A successful Mars Rover/Sample Return mission blasts off, carrying its cargo of Martian samples back to Earth.
As potential strategies are modified in light of these factors, the result should be a set of two or three distinct, viable strategies whose resource requirements, threats to success, and implications to NASA and the nation are well defined and understood. Although this process is being developed at NASA, it is not NASA’s role to determine the overall strategy for the nation’s civilian space program; that must be a national decision. NASA should, however, be prepared to present viable options. The potential benefit of this process is evident. It can result in a cohesive strategy that is consistent with national goals, is based on a realistic appraisal of NASA’s strengths and weaknesses and the nation's willingness to pursue it, and is resilient to changes in the international environment.
Ideally, of course, a strategy would already be in place. Then each initiative could be judged in light of its compatibility with the overall plan.
While stressing the need for a comprehensive strategy, we can nevertheless conduct a preliminary assessment of the initiatives, recognizing that the important considerations are the quality of the program, NASA's ability to carry it out, and the public's willingness to support it. In the process of this evaluation, we can see the elements of a potential strategy begin to emerge.
Exploration of the Solar System
In the 1960s and 1970s, planetary exploration was a vital and important component of the United States space program. However, while other nations are now vigorously pursuing solar system exploration, the U.S. has launched no planetary missions since 1978.
What does the next decade hold in store? The Soviets have announced their intent to launch three ambitious flights to Mars by 1995, and a Mars sample return mission by 2000. If they are successful with their new-generation spacecraft, and can continue to forge cooperative agreements with European nations, they will clearly have the greater momentum in the exploration of Mars by the mid-1990s.
The Chairman of the NASA Advisory Council's Solar System Exploration Committee has expressed his concern about more than the exploration of Mars: "If we do not continue to carry out these challenging missions to the outer planets and comets and asteroids, we will quickly lose the limited momentum still remaining. "
The Solar System Exploration Committee has devised a strategy for planetary exploration through the year 2000, which presented “the minimum-level program that could be carried out in a cost-effective manner, and would yield continuing return of scientific results.” NASA should embrace this Core Program.
The Mars Rover/Sample Return mission is the centerpiece of the Solar System Exploration Committee’s recommended augmentation to its Core Program. This is a mission of bold scientific exploration and high technological drama, and a necessary precursor to the human exploration of Mars. The option for a 1998 launch (two years later than the 1996 date proposed in the initiative) should be preserved.
Although the Mars Rover/Sample Return was presented as a U.S. mission in this initiative, it could be performed in cooperation with our allies and/or in coordination with the Soviet Union. In fact, planetary exploration is well suited to international cooperation. The U.S. could benefit significantly by coordinating its Mars Observer with the three sophisticated Soviet missions to be launched for Mars over the next seven years. Coordination of these early flights, and exchange of resulting data, would leave the U.S. better prepared to undertake a Mars Rover/Sample Return mission, whether in coordination with the Soviets or alone.
Planetary exploration need not be NASA’s primary focus, but it offers opportunities to exercise leadership in the international arena through organizing and participating in coalitions to achieve objectives which are consistent with U. S. goals, and it can provide important precursor information for either of the larger human exploration initiatives.
Robotic planetary exploration should be actively supported and nurtured within NASA. Although it does not have the immediate relevance of the Mission to Planet Earth, or the excitement of human exploration, it is fundamental science that challenges our technology, extends our presence, and gives us a glimpse of other worlds. As such, it enjoys widespread public interest and support. Although not necessarily at the pace suggested in this initiative, planetary exploration must be solidly supported through the 1990s.
Mission to Planet Earth
Mission to Planet Earth is not the sort of major program the public normally associates with an agency famous for Apollo, Viking, and Voyager. But this initiative is a great one, not because it offers tremendous excitement and adventure, but because of its fundamental importance to humanity's future on this planet.
This initiative directly addresses the problems that will be facing humanity in the coming decades, and its continuous scientific return will produce results which are of major significance to all the residents of the planet. The benefits are clear to a public that is increasingly concerned about global environmental problems like ozone depletion, buildup of greenhouse gases, and acidification of lakes and forests. And as the environment and its preservation become more pressing issues, the initiative retains its importance for many generations to come.
For this reason it should enjoy sustained public and Congressional support and interest. The U. S. is the only country currently capable of leading a Mission to Planet Earth, but the program is designed around, and requires, international cooperation. Admittedly, the initiative’s international scope could complicate its coordination and implementation, but the concept embodied in the initiative enjoys widespread international support. As more and more countries are facing ecological problems, there is increasing interest in a global approach. In fact, this concept is supported by several international organizations, and may emerge as a theme for the International Space Year, 1992. This initiative represents an important opportunity for the United States to exercise leadership in an increasingly significant area.
As the Earth System Sciences Committee suggests, NASA is a natural leader for a Mission to Planet Earth. The National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will play important roles, and interagency coordination is crucial. But since the major focus is on observations from space and the coordination and analysis of these (and ground-based) observations, NASA is uniquely suited to lead the effort. It is a natural use for, and extension of, our low-Earth orbital facilities and capabilities, and would not severely drain resources from existing programs. This is an initiative well within NASA’s capabilities, and could be carried out with our traditional commitment to excellence.
Should NASA do it? Virtually everyone exposed to this initiative recognized its fundamental importance, and agreed that “whatever we do, we have to do this”; but some felt it may not be bold and visionary enough to stimulate the increased funding necessary. The National Commission on Space conducted numerous public sessions on the space program, and solicited and received comments from a wide cross-section of Americans. The Commission’s report lists a series of points “brought forward repeatedly” in those public sessions. One of these was the concern that “any new push into space must supplement living on Earth.... Don’t abandon our home planet!”
Plans are already under way within NASA to undertake a subset of this program. The Earth Observing System, which consists of two NASA polar platforms, is being coordinated with the corresponding activities of the European Space Agency and Japan. The first NASA platform is part of the Phase I Space Station. The second platform, the instruments, and the payloads remain unapproved. And although the Earth Observing System would represent a major start, it is not sufficient to fulfill all the objectives of this initiative. Critical activities for the immediate future include the coordination of Federal agencies, and the strengthening of international agreements to facilitate the coordination of this international effort.
NASA should embrace Mission to Planet Earth. This initiative is responsive, time-critical, and shows a recognition of our responsibility to our home planet. Do we dare apply our capabilities to explore the mysteries of other worlds, and not also apply those capabilities to explore and understand the mysteries of our own world — mysteries which may have important implications for our future on this planet?
Humans to Mars
Exploring, prospecting, and settling Mars are clearly the ultimate goals of the next several decades of human exploration. But what strategy should be followed to attain those goals?
Any expedition to Mars is a huge undertaking, which requires a commitment of resources which must be sustained over decades. This task group has examined only one possible scenario for a Mars initiative — a scenario designed to land humans on Mars by 2005. This timescale requires an early and significant investment in technology; it also demands a heavy-lift launch vehicle, a larger Shuttle fleet, and a transportation depot at the Space Station near the turn of the century. This would require an immediate commitment of resources and an approximate tripling of NASA's budget during the mid-1990s.
More important, NASA would be hard pressed to carry the weight of this ambitious initiative in the 1990s without severely taxing existing programs. NASA’s available resources were strained to the limit flying nine Shuttle flights in one year. It will be difficult to achieve the operations capacity to launch and control 12 to 14 Shuttle flights per year, and assemble, test, and continuously operate a Space Station in the mid1990s. It would not be wise to embark on an ambitious program whose requirements could overwhelm those of the Shuttle and Space Station during the critical next decade.
This suggests that we should revise the ground rules and consider other approaches to human exploration of Mars. One alternative is to retain' the scenario developed here, but to proceed at a more deliberate (but still aggressive) pace, and allow the first human landing to occur in 2010. This spreads the investment over a longer period, and though it also delays the significant milestones and extends the length of commitment, it greatly reduces the urgency for Space Station evolution and growth, and consequently for transportation capabilities as well.
We must pursue a more deliberate program; this implies that we should avoid a “race to Mars.” There is the very real danger that if the U.S. announces a human Mars initiative at this time, it could escalate into another space race. Whether such a race was real or perceived, there would be constant pressure to set a timetable, to accelerate it if possible, and to avoid falling behind. Schedule pressures, as the Rogers Commission noted, can have a very real, adverse effect. The pressure could make it difficult to design and implement a program which would have a strong foundation and adequate momentum to sustain itself beyond the first few piloted missions. This could turn an initiative that envisions the eventual development of a habitable outpost into another one-shot spectacular. Such a dead-end venture does not have the support of most NASA personnel. Neither, according to the National Commission on Space, does it have the support of the public. A “theme brought forward repeatedly” in the Commission's extensive public sessions was “a strong wish that our next goal for piloted space activity not be another Apollo — a one-shot foray or a political stunt.”
THE OFFICE OF EXPLORATION
During the majority of this work, there was no focal point within NASA for studies on human exploration. Recognizing this deficiency, and adopting one of the early recommendations of this study, the NASA Administrator has established the Office of Exploration to fund, direct, and coordinate studies related to human exploration.
Both of the human exploration initiatives described in this work were generated in a workshop or task force environment. The three to four months devoted to their formulation were adequate only to develop the starting point for in-depth studies. The Office of Exploration will be responsible for coordinated mission studies to develop these and other scenarios, to assess mission concepts and schedules, and to study trade-offs in requirements, technology, transportation, and facilities utilization. Advanced technology and transportation requirements cannot be developed in a vacuum. These mission studies will provide a context for planning technology and transportation development and Space Station evolution (and studies in these areas will of course, feed back into the mission scenarios).
The establishment of the Office of Exploration was an important step. Adequate support of the Office will be equally important, and will be an indication of the commitment to long-term human exploration. There is some concern among observers that the Office was created only to placate critics, not to provide a serious focus for human exploration. Studies relating to human exploration of the Moon or Mars currently command only about .03 percent of NASA’s budget (approximately 1 dollar out of 3000); this is not enough.
The scenario described in this report is a rational, sustained program, leading to an outpost and eventual permanent base on Mars. But there is some fear that it is susceptible to transformation into a stunt. This could mortgage the viable space program we hope to have in the 1990s for a “spectacular,” which may have few lasting benefits.
Settling Mars should be our eventual goal, but it should not be our next goal. Sending people to and from Mars is not the only issue involved. Understanding the requirements and implications of building and sustaining a permanent base on another world is equally important. We should adopt a strategy of natural progression which leads, step by step, in an orderly, unhurried way, inexorably toward Mars.
Outpost on the Moon
The Lunar initiative is a logical part of a long-range strategy for human exploration. The National Commission on Space recommended that the U.S. follow a “natural progression for future space activities within the solar system,” and concluded that the natural progression of human exploration leads next to the Moon.
The establishment of a lunar outpost would be a significant step outward from Earth — a step that combines adventure, science, technology, and perhaps the seeds of enterprise. Exploring and prospecting the Moon, learning to use lunar resources and work within lunar constraints, would provide the experience and expertise necessary for further human exploration of the solar system.
The Lunar initiative is a major undertaking. Like the Mars initiative, it requires a national commitment that spans decades. It, too, demands an early investment in advanced technology, Earth-to-orbit transportation, and a plan for Space Station evolution. Even considering its gradual evolution over the first five years, the ambitious buildup of the lunar outpost envisioned in this scenario would require a high level of effort in the mid-to-late 1990s, and would place substantial demands on transportation and orbital facilities. This is a period when resources may be scarce.
However, this initiative is quite flexible. Its pace can be controlled, and more important, adapted to capability. It is possible to lay the foundation of the outpost in the year 2000, then build it gradually, to ease the burden on transportation and Space Station at the turn of the century.
The Lunar initiative is designed to be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Relying on the Space Station for systems and subsystems, for operations experience, and for technology development and testing, it builds on and gradually extends existing capabilities. Many of the systems needed for reaching outward to Mars could be developed and proven in the course of work in the Earth-Moon region. It is not absolutely necessary to establish this stepping stone, but it certainly makes sense to gain experience, expertise, and confidence nearer Earth first, and then to set out for Mars.
This study did not include an assessment of the level of public support for these initiatives. However, there is considerable sentiment that Apollo was a dead-end venture, and we have little left to show for it. Although this task force found some who dismissed this initiative because “we've been to the Moon,” it found many more who feel that this generation should continue the work begun by Apollo.
Although explorers have reached the Moon, the Moon has not been fully explored. This initiative would push back frontiers, not to achieve a blaze of glory, but to explore, to understand, to learn, and to develop; it would place the Apollo Program into a broader context of continuing exploration, spanning several generations of Americans. And it fits beautifully into a natural progression of human expansion that leads “from the highlands of the Moon to the plains of Mars.”