Friday, September 12, 2003

From Slashdot: Democrats have just introduced the Space Exploration Act of 2003 to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Bill, H.R. 3057, aka the "Space Exploration Act of 2003", sets forth a set of goals and a vision for the progress of manned spaceflight over the next 20 years. In particular, the bill sets an 8 year goal of "the development and flight demonstration of a reusable space vehicle" capable of transporting astronauts and equipment to Earth-sun and Earth-moon libration points as well as moon orbit. Libration points are points in space where a gravitic equilibrium exists. At Earth-Sun L1, a satellite or observatory station would retain a one-year orbit of the sun despite being closer due to the influence of Earth's gravity. That is, in any orbit, the closer you are to the gravity source, the faster you circumnavigate the orbit. That is why Venus' orbit is ~225 days, and Mercury's orbit is ~180 days. Normally a satellite between the earth in the sun would revolve around the sun too fast to stay in a useful position between the two bodies; but at the libration point earth's gravity slows the orbit to a 365 day revolution.

A similar situation occurs at Sun-Earth L2, but it is on the dark side of the earth, farther away from the sun. Normally this would result in Earth moving faster than the satellite/observatory, but at L2, Earth's gravity speeds up the satellite's orbit from, say, 390 days to a standard terran year.

The moon points are similar, but respective to Earth's gravity well and the Moon's orbit (the lunar month). So why is getting to these points useful? An Earth-Sun L1 satellite can monitor solar wind, which arrives at L1 about an hour before hitting Earth. Additionally, L1 satellites can monitor the sun uninterrupted by eclipses by Earth. Normally, satellites in Earth orbit experience a 5 to 30 degree eclipse of the sun due to Earth's shadow every revolution, depending on how high their orbit is. The L2 point is where NASA's new infrared telescope is currently orbiting - since it's permanently in the shadow of the earth, the Sun's light interferes less with its imaging.

In the future, Earth-Moon libration points could be used to beam microwave energy from Lunar nuclear energy plants via a lunosynchronous satellite network back to earth. Who knows what other scientific opportunities will present themselves? But back to the new Bill.

In 10 years, the H.R. 3057 wants NASA to be able to rendezvous with an Earth-orbit crossing asteroid and land on it. How cool is that? Did you ever see the movie Armageddon? That's what they had to do. A big asteroid was going to hit earth and so they went up in rockets, landed on it, drilled a hole and dropped a nuke. The story is far-fetched and the statistics of an asteroid hitting earth are very small. I think I read somewhere that the likelihood of an asteroid causing global catastrophy in the next 1000 years are worse than a bomb set off in a junkyard producing a fully-functional 747 jumbo jet. Nevertheless, I would bet that this part of the plan was put in as a sop to the Pentagon. Plus, they want to land on an asteroid by 2014! How awesome would that be? It is a well documented fact that the moon contains rich deposits of titanium ore, and that there are several asteroid belts containing heavy metals. This kind of program could lead to a huge space-mining industry 50 years down the road. Well, maybe more like 100. Even so, it's heady stuff.

Next up: In 15 years, they want a vehicle that can take off from Earth and land on the moon, as well as "as the development and deployment of a human-tended habitation and research facility on the lunar surface". This, to me, seems a little over-ambitious. Building advanced vehicles and even space stations is one thing. I believe, however, that before we can not only launch materiel into space but land it with a reusable craft, we will need a large infrastructure in orbit around earth. The ISS is a good start, but I think until we have structures capable of docking at least 4 shuttles(or OSP's, rockets, whatever) and holding vast reserves of fuel, as well as providing habitat and life support for a much larger array of personnel, this will be unachievable. Without a major breakthrough in propulsion technology, landing a heavy load of material, even on the reduced-gravity surface of the moon, will be prohibitively expensive. But I hope they prove me wrong.

Lastly, by 2024, they want a vehicle capable of travelling from low-earth orbit to martian orbit or martian lunar orbit, another vehicle capable of going from martian orbit to the martian surface, and a similar habitation on the surface of one of Mars' moons. Mars has 2 moons, Phobos (fear) and Deimos (panic). They were named after the horses that pulled Are's (the greek god of war, complement to the Roman's version Mars) chariot of fire. Phobos is closer to mars and is the larger of the two, and would probably be where such a base would be located.

This is the single most ambitious part of the plan, and I believe it cannot succeed. To be fair, when Kennedy suggested we send men to the Moon, many did not believe that was possible in a mere decade. Even if it is possible, however, many studies have shown that the political motivation behind the Apollo missions were a huge detriment to the American space program in the long run. Before Kennedy's ultimatum, research had been heading towards economic, reuseable low-orbit space flight. The 10 years spent getting to the Moon delayed that research and sucked up huge amounts of cash, causing modern politicians to ware the space programs. Additionally, as the Columbia's recent demise and the subsequent investigation demonstrated, the push to get to space fostered a NASA culture where results took higher priority than safety - and despite NASA's many incredible achievements over the past 30 years, who is to say even more could have been done at less cost if science had been allowed to progress in a more natural fashion?

So we have all these goals set forth in this bill, as well as the establishment of a deputy administrator at NASA heading up a new "Office of Exploration." The single best part of this bill is the creation of a contest system. The Exploration Administrator's primary function would be to implement and oversee a series of design and contract contests for each goal, wherein private and public organizations, international teams, and government programs would compete for a chance to build their design for NASA. The contests would be judged by an independent team reviewing for cost estimate, funding profile, schedule, and risk reduction for development of necessary technologies. The results would be delivered to the Congress. This is an incredibly good idea, as part of the problem with NASA is the corporate culture of throwing money at any problem until it goes away. Here's an example: in one of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board's recent hearings, an ex-manager very high up in the hierarchy described that at one point, the foam which is sprayed onto the main booster's exterior was absorbing too much condensation between spraying and launch, which was sometimes several months. The original proposed solution was to build a giant vacuum sealed building to build the shuttle in. Eventually a low-level engineer submitted a solution of chemically altering the foam, which was adopted. But you get the idea. Innovation and competition can only mean good things for NASA.

Now the worst part of the bill. It provides $50 million this year and $200 million next year to get the ball rolling. This is a very small amount of money at NASA. To give you an idea, they had a budget of $28.8 billion in 2000-2001. Given the enormous ambition of the goals set forth in the Bill, I don't understand how they could possibly attach this amount to it. It just doesn't make any sense.

If America wants to succeed in exploring our solar system, we need to commit not only to funding that exploration, but to a vision. Without one, our efforts will be short-lived and unfocused; personal desires and politics will kill American space flight without a common goal. And with the Chinese space agency breathing down our necks and looking set to land on the moon in 5 years, many people in government are starting to feel the heat. I suppose with Bush's $87Bn being sent to Iraq it's hard for the writers of the resolution to ask for more, but hopefully this plan will at least give NASA the vision it so desperately needs, as well as the beginnings of a roadmap towards human exploration of the solar system. That, combined with the recent changes made due to the Columbia accident, and a renewed interest in the space program by the American public, could be exactly the kind of impetus needed to drive America into a golden age of space exploration. Maybe in my lifetime I will get a chace to take a tourist cruise to the moon. Maybe in my children's lifetime we will see a colony on Mars. Maybe, just maybe, someday humans will leave this tiny corner of the galaxy and explore new suns. It's a dream of immortality that inspires. Despite its flaws, I hope this bill gets passed and enacted. Without it, or something like it, spaceflight could be delayed for far too long.

- Jordan

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