Nov 22 2008
Like James Bond, who believed that “The World is Not Enough!”, The Planetary Society thinks the Moon is not enough…and frankly I agree with them!
I’ve always liked Lou Friedman and The Planetary Society! Explore the planets, humans to Mars, an international team — what’s not to like? It’s practically the meaning of life! I also enjoyed their new roadmap to the solar system: Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century. And the title of their plan says it all: the Moon is not enough. They have clear differences with NASA’s current Vision for Space Exploration.
There are now three fundamental visions for space: 1) NASA’s current Moon-focused Vision for Space Exploration, (VSE) 2) The Planetary Society’s roadmap featuring Mars, and 3) a vision with interstellar travel to the nearby stars as its focus. Vision 3 has been championed by the British Interplanetary Society since its 1970s Project Daedalus study, as well as by Gene Roddenberry. More recently it has resurfaced as a way to promote a multidecade, global commitment to human space exploration; in essence they believe that Mars is not enough.
The model of this weblog (e.g., Cordell, 2006, and “Forecasting...”) has met with considerable success in explaining great explorations and technology development over the last 200 years in the context of long-term fluctuations in the economy. For example, a) this model explains why Apollo began when it did and why it ended abruptly (as well as all the other Great Explorations over the last 200 years), b) the model pointed to a financial panic near 2008 and Obama’s likely election (although I failed to explicitly forecast them!), and 3) the model projects what we currently observe — increasing global interest in space as we approach another ebullient 1960s-like decade: the 2015 Maslow Window.
So in the context of this long-term economic model, I want to offer a few comments on the Planetary Society’s roadmap:
1. The program focus — Moon, Mars, interstellar — really matters from a marketing perspective. The Moon suffers from the fact that humans went there 6 times almost 40 years ago. This might encourage a “been there, done that” attitude. Or will the global public see human exploration of the Moon like past generations viewed terrestrial Great Explorations; i.e., progressing from more accessible locations like northwest North America (Lewis & Clark) to more distant ones like central Africa (“Dr. Livingstone I presume”) and both polar regions (early 20th Century)? However, if the global public views the Moon as just one more stop on the road to Mars and beyond, the sequence of Great Explorations over the last 200 years — North America, central Africa, Polar regions, Moon — suggests that Mars makes a more alluring program focus — from a marketing perspective — than the Moon.
2. Global momentum is currently toward the Moon. The U.S., with its International Lunar Network, as well as many other countries (including China, Japan) have expressed strong interests in Moon bases circa 2020. Authoritative sources (e.g., National Intelligence Council) forecast a “revolutionized” international system toward 2025 (during the 2015 Maslow Window) including new players at the high table (e.g., Brazil, India) and new rules. This will enhance U.S. plans for expanding ISS-style coorperation to the Moon and beyond, and may even make a truly global approach to space (such as Interspace) possible. This trend, plus the closeness and easy access of the Moon, may make a Mars focus — even in the 2020s — less attractive to the global public.
3. Astronaut safety will drive any deep space program strategy.
Current NASA boss Mike Griffin contends that safety requires a Mars program to go through ISS and the Moon in logical steps, much like the Apollo program carefully approached the Moon. The Planetary Society report deemphasizes lunar surface infrastructure in favor of near-term human exploration of near-Earth asteroids. Although not mentioned in their report, developing human space ops experience at near-Earth asteroids will be extremely valuable at Mars when establishing human bases on Phobos and Deimos. The Planetary Society Mars-focus strategy elegantly integrates the first human missions beyond the Earth-Moon system with planetary defense (from near-Earth asteroid impacts), and with specific preparations for future human operations in the Mars system.
4. For a multidecade, global space vision to be viable, it must include a realistic geopolitical and economic framework provided by long-term trends over the last 200 years. The Planetary Society roadmap asserts that the NASA VSE goal of a human return to the Moon by 2020 may “lead to multi-decade delays in expansion of human activity beyond the Earth-Moon system.” They are absolutely right as I pointed out previously, although it’s not fundamentally because of programmatic and funding conflicts. They are more on target here: “The national economic situation exacerbates NASA’s budget difficulties and makes it likely that the stated lunar exploration timetable cannot be met.” In fact, the national (and global) economic situation is a predictable consequence of technological, exploration, and military trends that have persisted over at least the last 200 years. Ignorance of them results in disappointments like the abrupt end of the spectacular Apollo program. However, in reality, they provide a dependable framework within which multi-decade programs of any kind (including space) can be structured so they flourish and enable human expansion into the cosmos.