Date:30 June 2009
A four-time shuttle astronaut advises the American president on how to lead in space.
Dear Mr President: En route to the first lunar landing 40 years ago, Apollo 11’s astronauts altered their course with a three-second rocket burn that fine-tuned their aim to a point 111 km above the moon. With your 2010 budget plan, you gave Nasa a course correction, lifting the agency’s funding nine per cent to R187 billion. Your stimulus act added an additional R10 billion. That combined amount – just 0,5 per cent of all federal spending – may seem trivial amid the hundreds of billions earmarked to boost the economy. But your funding decisions will make or break America’s status as the world leader in space.
You set Nasa’s agenda each year by proposing its goals and budget; it’s up to Congress to approve or modify those directives and the job of the agency’s administrator to carry them out. Nasa is currently wrestling with a constellation of major challenges. Here are the moves you should make to keep the US space programme on the right trajectory.
First, Mr President, resist shortsighted political pressure to delay the Shuttle’s retirement. You approved the Bush administration’s plan to decommission the Shuttle by 2010 and replace it with Orion, the first new American spaceship to be built in more than 30 years, but many will pressure you to keep the Shuttle flying.
That would be politically expedient but counterproductive. The ageing Shuttle first flew nearly 30 years ago, and although two fatal accidents led to design improvements, it is still a temperamental and risky vehicle. Cracks in three hydrogen-control valves delayed last winter’s Discovery launch by more than a month. Tremendously versatile, the Shuttle is also fragile, and every astronaut crew knows the risk: any serious launch or entry failure will likely be catastrophic. The Russians, whose space future is heavily tied to the continued operation of the International Space Station (ISS), will find it in their interests to keep Soyuz capsules available to American astronauts until Orion finally takes flight in 2015.
Yes, we will miss the Shuttle, but its operation costs more than R30 billion a year. Money freed by its retirement should go directly to field the safer and more efficient Orion. With its sturdy, compact structure, robust heat shield and launchabort system, Orion offers future crews a tenfold increase in safety. Most important, Orion can take us beyond low Earth orbit into deep space – somewhere the veteran Shuttle can never go.
Nearing completion after a decade of construction, the ISS will be our only foothold in space until Orion makes its debut. Yet tight Nasa budgets have starved the station of the vigorous scientific activities it was built to conduct. Let’s get some payback for the many billions we have invested. Tell Russia, Europe, Japan and our other partners we will continue to use the station until at least 2020, and make the science investments that will keep its three big laboratories humming. Research aboard the ISS, for example, has revealed a genetic “master switch” in salmonella bacteria that controls the microbe’s capacity for infection. The discovery should help scientists design an effective vaccine for this dangerous germ; future research could lead to groundbreaking new treatments to combat infectious disease and improve our quality of life on Earth.
On one of its last flights to the ISS, the Shuttle will deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, designed to search for rare antimatter and to study the universe’s mysterious dark matter. The station is also the perfect place to try out promising space technologies: spacesuits, life-support systems and radiation-protection techniques essential for voyages into deep space. The Ad Astra Rocket Company will soon use the ISS to test its high-efficiency plasma rocket engine, a potential game changer for Mars exploration. Budget bureaucrats in the previous administration undermined the station; its productive future is in your hands.
Direct Nasa to follow through with plans for using private industry to ship cargo to the space station. Money saved through competitive bidding for those cargo services can then be spent on exploration. Getting US firms off the launchpad is the quickest way to eliminate our looming reliance on Russian rockets for cargo and crew transport to the ISS. If private cargo services are reliable and affordable, Nasa may also contract for commercial spacecraft to give astronauts an economical lift to the space station.
Mr President, your budget endorses Nasa’s return to the Moon; so do lawmakers. Now deliver the sustained funding to get us there, a commitment the previous administration and Congress failed to live up to. China, India and other competitors recognise the economic and technological rewards of spaceflight. They are rapidly catching up to us in low Earth orbit and make no secret that the Moon is their target. We should welcome partners on our journey there, but leave no doubt that Americans will lead the way.
Send our explorers not just to the Moon, but far beyond. Orion missions to nearby asteroids would reap new scientific discoveries, tap valuable space resources, gain knowledge to guard against a cosmic impact and inspire us with views of abreathtakingly distant Earth.
Use your platform to explain why space exploration will continue to be an American trademark. Tell the public that space is not just about science – it’s about exploring for resources and energy, creating new industries and finding economic opportunity. You should drive home the message that investment in space technology will keep our scientists and engineers keen and capable.
Generations of Americans found prosperity and forged our nation’s future on the frontier. Look our young people in the eye and tell them that we need explorers – doers – who are citizens of the most forward-looking nation on Earth. Tell them America is signing up a world-beating corps of talented scientists and engineers and turning them loose to explore the Moon, the asteroids and the solar system. That same team can conquer terrestrial challenges in energy, defense, environmental protection and high-tech competition.
Mr President, reignite the excitement generated by Apollo 11 and the epic voyages that followed. Launch our future explorers to prove themselves at the frontiers of space.
Tom Jones, Shuttle astronaut, planetary scientist and member of the PM Editorial Board of Advisers, explores the solar system with co-author Ellen Stofan in “Planetology: unlocking the secrets of the solar system”.