Incremental Steps Towards Beyond LEO Exploration

The following is my post to the Review Of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, commonly referred to as the Augustine Committee, or just the Committee. One of the subcommittees tasked with beyond low-earth orbit, or LEO, missions posted a document, Exploration Beyond LEO, and asked for comments.

Some, perhaps many, will disagree with my view that a step-by-step path towards beyond-LEO manned exploration is the “best way to go”, claiming it is not exciting enough to fire-up the imagination of our nation’s people in general and youth in particular. None-the-less, as former NASA Deputy Administrator Hans Mark once said, “Americans don’t like it when you kill their astronauts”. Even with an incremental beyond-LEO manned exploration program, there will be plenty of risk to go around. The key is to not push that risk too far out that it leaves us is a no-win situation but far enough out that it challenges us.

The incremental progress made from Freedom 7’s launch to the successful mission of Apollo 11 enabled NASA to learn as it went from ballistic missions at the edge of space to landing men on the moon. NASA today certainly knows more than NASA of 1960 did of whether and how people can live and work in space. But from a hardware, systems, and mission management perspective, institutionally NASA has lost much of its abilities to work beyond LEO. As such, any program that tasks NASA with beyond lunar missions without the benefit of learning the lessons NASA once did in the build-up to, and successful completion of, the Apollo program will only raise human and technical risks.

NASA’s beyond-LEO manned program ended 36 years ago and during that more than generation time-frame NASA has been simulating how to manage long distance and duration manned missions. As for the worth of such a virtual experience base, would any of us willingly be passengers on an airliner with a crew whose only exposure to piloting an aircraft was in books and simulators? I know as a private pilot that I wouldn’t because I know that there is a world of difference between simulations and reality when it comes to flying, just as there is in manned space exploration. Why should the tax-payers and their elected representatives have lower expectations when it comes to NASA engaging in beyond-LEO exploration? Just because our parents and grandparents put men on the moon does not mean we can do so without first acquiring the knowledge and experience they took with them when they left NASA.

Beyond-LEO manned exploration should begin with short to medium duration stays, followed by a permanent presence, on the moon. NASA needs to learn how to manage missions in which an immediate return to earth in the event of an emergency is not possible; the 3-day distance between earth and moon will teach NASA a great deal. Once NASA and its commercial contractors “know” what they are doing 384K km from earth, that is having successfully accomplished pre-established benchmarks needed for longer distance and duration exploration, then would be the time to expand to asteroids, Mars, and beyond. There will be dangers enough in this step-by-step process of moving from LEO missions, just as there were through Apollo. Rushing to Mars without first doing the footwork of long-duration exploration that can be honed in lunar exploration will only drive up the human and fiscal toll.

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