A Crossroads in Outer Space: Faculty Perspectives
- Wednesday, Feb 24, 2010
In light of recent announcements about NASA's future, two aerospace engineering faculty, Drs. Bob Bishop and Wallace Fowler, offer their outlook for space exploration.
Left: Dr. Robert Bishop; right: Dr. Wallace Fowler
Professor Robert H. Bishop:
Cutting manned space flight is wrong for the human experience.
In most ways, humans are now more sophisticated than those that came before us. Unlike the early earth-bound explorers, we are capable of leaving the cradle of civilization and living in space. Yet, 50 years after the launch of Sputnik and the start of the Space Age, we seem to be interminably stuck going in circles around the Earth. Indeed, the second brightest object in our night sky—the International Space Station—has been traveling in a near-circular orbit for years. Why is America so timid? Where is our spirit to explore and create new opportunities? Read more.
Professor Wallace Fowler:
The future U.S. space program will be shared with private adventurers.
We are at a crossroads in the U.S. civilian space program. NASA has launched its four Great Observatories (Hubble, Compton, Chandra, and Spitzer) and is preparing the follow-on James Webb Space Telescope. Messenger is still on its way to its orbit around Mercury, Cassini is still working at Saturn, New Horizons is on the way to Pluto, and the two Mars rovers are still working, although one is stuck in the sand. On the human spaceflight front, the Shuttle will soon be retired as the final elements of the International Space Station (ISS) are delivered and attached. Read more.
By Professor Robert H. Bishop
On a clear night you can look into the sky and see the wonders of the universe in much the same way as our ancestors. Night sky gazing is a bridge to our past. If we search circumspectly, the night sky and all it contains also offers a vision of our future.
In most ways, humans are now more sophisticated than those that came before us. Unlike the early earth-bound explorers, we are capable of leaving the cradle of civilization and living in space. Yet, 50 years after the launch of Sputnik and the start of the Space Age, we seem to be interminably stuck going in circles around the Earth. Indeed, the second brightest object in our night sky—the International Space Station—has been traveling in a near-circular orbit for years. Why is America so timid? Where is our spirit to explore and create new opportunities?
Our elected leaders have decided that ending the human exploration of space is a battle worth fighting. There are those in the science community that applaud this move, saying that now science will move to the forefront. Let’s be clear, exploration is not about science, it’s about the human experience, our continued shared journey as a society searching for meaning. The great tragedy is that we are debating robotic exploration versus human exploration, rather than working together to expand exploration in all areas of space.
Landing humans on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth was undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of humankind. The drive to the moon was a national priority driven by the Cold War. It focused our efforts in science and engineering and propelled the United States to dominate the world’s high-tech markets. Having a concerted effort to solve such complicated problems as making smaller and faster computers, creating lighter and stronger materials, and building better, smaller, and faster guidance systems allowed the United States to pull ahead of the other nations and gave us a technological advantage. President Kennedy’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon inspired a whole generation of students and encouraged them to pursue careers in the fields of math, science, and engineering. We did these things because we saw the power and hope of humankind through the eyes of the astronauts, those real-life super-heroes that kids wanted to emulate, to follow into space.
Fast-forward 50 years to find few speaking eloquently of a vision of the future. The romance is missing. Young minds so stimulated by dreams of exploration and discovery are instead shamelessly bored with ramblings of bailouts, tax cuts, border fences, and on and on.
Instead, let’s invest our money in our future. Reinvigorate our exploration program. Our youth are bored and the moon is waiting for their return. Reinvent the education programs across the country. Expand the opportunities for engineers and teachers and we all benefit. We cannot dismiss the future and we cannot continue to the abandonment of our youth.
Funding for education and exploration supports teachers, scientists, engineers, technical and administrative staff, local businesses, and students so they can buy homes, raise children, save for college, pay for and go to school, and well, just live life. It leads to motivated and healthy young people, new scientific and medical discoveries, and new technologies that improve our lives and upon which we can build wealth. This is real homeland security.
On my next star gazing outing, should I be fortunate enough to find a shooting star I will make a wish that someday a hero emerges on the American political landscape to inspire our young people and to lead us boldly to explore our universe. Not with robots alone, but also with living and breathing astronauts. For as T. S. Eliot once remarked, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
By Professor Wallace Fowler
We are at a crossroads in the U.S. civilian space program. NASA has launched its four Great Observatories (Hubble, Compton, Chandra, and Spitzer) and is preparing the follow-on James Webb Space Telescope. Messenger is still on its way to its orbit around Mercury, Cassini is still working at Saturn, New Horizons is on the way to Pluto, and the two Mars rovers are still working, although one is stuck in the sand. On the human spaceflight front, the Shuttle will soon be retired as the final elements of the International Space Station (ISS) are delivered and attached.
Recently, the President announced that he plans to cancel the Constellation program which was designed as our next step in the human flight area, focusing on a return to the moon. His goal is to move NASA away from its current role as a space transportation provider and allow it to again become a research and development organization. This will leave NASA without the capability to send humans to orbit.
Tomorrow’s NASA space program will be different. Human space flight beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), beyond Earth’s natural radiation shields (the Van Allen belts), is dangerous. Currently, a human being outside the Van Allen belts could receive the NASA defined “lifetime dose” of galactic cosmic radiation within 200 days. If the Sun spews out a coronal jet of radiation in a solar storm in the direction of the spacecraft, a lethal dose can be received in a few hours. Mars does not have the equivalent of the shielding Van Allen belts, so a Mars base would also need shielding. Until we develop appropriate shielding, probably an intense magnetic field around the spacecraft, human travel, even to the moon, will likely be limited.
Robotic missions, in the short term, will be limited to the inner solar system. In the inner solar system (within the orbit of Mars), the solar cells can be used to power spacecraft. Beyond Mars, spacecraft power systems rely on radioactive means to create electricity, and we do not currently have a supply source for the needed material. There is a very short supply of Plutonium 238, the radioactive element used to provide electricity for spacecraft going to Jupiter and beyond. We have exhausted the U.S. supply and have been buying it from the Russians. Now they are in short supply and other sources are not currently available. In order to obtain more Plutonium 238, a breeder reactor must be used, and currently, the U.S. has no breeder reactors in operation. The production process is estimated to take about 5 years to produce sufficient Plutonium 238 to power new deep space exploring spacecraft. A complicating factor is that Plutonium 238 is also a building block for atomic bombs.
NASA’s $18 billion-plus budget has been the target for many who want additional funds for their favorite programs. This amount is about one-half of one percent of the U.S. government’s budget – excluding the stimulus funds. In comparison, the U.S. population annually spends $27 billion on pizza, $64 billion on illegal drugs, $88 billion on tobacco products, $ 100 - $150 billion on alcohol, and $586 billion on gambling. Economists have estimated that each dollar spent by NASA returns $8 to the economy.
The civilian benefits of the space program have been many – communications, medical technologies, new materials, new processes, safety equipment, transportation technologies, etc. However, few are aware that the genesis of the microcomputer lies in the Apollo program, in the Apollo guidance computer. NASA needed as much computational capability as possible in a package having the lowest mass possible. Civilian benefits continue to flow from the space program and are rarely recognized. However, a new type of civilian involvement in the space program is needed, and companies are working to meet the new need.
The new need is a robust commercial space program that includes the capacity to carry cargo and humans to LEO. Backed by wealthy entrepreneurs, a few companies such as SpaceX, are exploring ways to meet this need. The financial returns from meeting this need are not yet sufficient to support purely commercial operations. Government contracts will be necessary for the next decade or more to provide support human access to space. For the short term, before U.S. commercial rockets become human rated, we will purchase rides to space from the Russians. In the long term, transportation of cargo and humans to and from LEO will be a commercial activity.
In summary, government space agencies will continue to sponsor most missions beyond LEO while commercial entities will slowly take over the functions transporting cargo and humans to and from LEO. The U.S. commercial activity will develop slowly, but “commercial” activity is already taking place as the U.S. government and wealthy adventurers purchase trips to the International Space Station from the Russians.
Dr. Fowler is a distinguished teaching professor in aerospace engineering. His work in spacecraft design and teaching is supported through the Paul D. and Betty Robertson Meek Centennial Professor in Engineering endowment.