As we all know another administration change is coming and with change as the operative theme of this administration, we can surely expect that this will come to NASA's direction. Many people are anticipating this (except for the current administrator) and are formulating their plans on how we can "improve" upon Dr. Griffin's ESAS architecture. I get calls from many of these people and participate in some of the discussions. However, as I hear these calls and read the position papers there is a feeling of something missing and the thing that is missing is what has left us circling the Earth in some form or fashion for the past 36 years. The thing that is missing is a compelling "why" as a fundamental rational for our space efforts.
There is a difference between a why and a compelling why. An example of a non compelling why is the December 2008 report by a group of MIT Academics. To that group the primary reason for human spaceflight is:
"We define primary objectives of human spaceflight as those that can only be accomplished through the physical presence of human beings, have benefits that exceed the opportunity costs, and are worthy of significant risk to human life. These include exploration, national pride, and international prestige and leadership. Human spaceflight achieves its goals and appeals to the broadest number of people when it represents an expansion of human experience. "
Huh? As a long time space advocate I look at the above and see nothing different than what has been spouted as the reasons for the past 30+ years that at each time a critical mass of support was reached, ended up with broken architectures and deferred dreams. The above rational from the MIT group makes about as much sense to me as a mission to setup an Antarctic outpost in 1862. The last time I wrote words like this I was a student during the Space Exploration Initiative of the late 1980's and early 90's and I am unwilling to see our dreams deferred for yet another generation. Space, if it is to ever prosper must be coincident with the compelling national interest and the MIT report as well as NASA's current plan are both ignoring the serious national peril that we are in today.
The way that sustained political support is built for any long term effort is to show that whatever is proposed provides a crucial national capability or addresses a critical national problem. An example of the former is the National railroad, championed and funded by the Lincoln administration (Lincoln was a former railroad lawyer) even in the midst of the biggest crisis in U.S. history. An example of the latter is the Apollo program, which was a proxy cold war effort that helped to defuse the almost hot war of a young democratic president almost exactly 100 years after Lincoln.
Space encompasses both chains of reason. The economic development of the solar system, beginning at the Moon and extending on from there addresses the critical national and even global problem of energy and resources, while providing the opportunity for mankind to incorporate the vast riches that await us there. Any other reasoning for the exploration of space is a hollow effort who's prestige value is no more than adding an additional footnote in some future civilization's history book.
We know that the resources are out there, on the Moon and beyond. Dr. John Lewis in his book "Mining the Sky" has pointed out the trillions of dollars worth of platinum group metals that we know are there, based upon measurements of metal meteorites that have struck the Earth. How does this address a critical national problem? The following is from a press release just days old on the subject of fuel cells:
"Current fuel cell technology is hamstrung by impracticality. The most efficient and powerful fuel cells need large amounts of heat and space, whereas those suitable for smaller scale operation require lots of precious, expensive platinum. "If we converted every car in the U.S. to fuel cells, we'd need more platinum than there is in the proven reserves," Haile says."
Fuel cells and hydrogen, whether derived from hydrocarbons, solar energy, or nuclear power, is the ultimate future of transportation fuel. Without reasonably priced transportation fuel it is impossible to sustain our global civilization. Fuel cells are much more fuel efficient than internal combustion engines and their exhaust is water, eliminating the perceived climate consequences of continuing to use fossil fuels. The ability to move about at will with humans and robotic systems in the inner solar system is an imperative that brings us these riches. A pretty compelling reason.
There are any number of reasons beyond this to build a robust in space transportation network and outposts for resource acquisition. There is growing evidence that as recently as 13,000 years ago, an asteroid or comet struck the Laurentide ice sheet of North America, and event that may have wiped out not only the Mammoth, the Sabertooth Tiger, and the other North American megafauna, but may have wiped out the Clovis culture as well. We know now through various NASA, Defense Department, and international sky surveys, that the inner solar system is populated with more rocks or comets and the likelihood is 100% that at some time in the future, maybe not so far away, that one of these objects will strike us again.
With a means to help secure the future through tapping into the incredibly rich resources of the solar system and to provide a means to protect ourselves from the danger, these are compelling reasons. Change is needed in many areas of our national policy and space is no different. It is hoped that a president focused on positive change will see space as a major place to invest our precious national resources.
In ending, space has one further benefit, wealth. It is the wealth of material resources that will help to fund the future. Nations, like companies and families can only prosper when the bank account is positive. We have had a national negative balance on our checking account for a very long time and it is only a matter of time before those checks start bouncing. It is far past time that we start looking at bringing wealth back to our nation and space and its benefits is the greatest single source of wealth around. Recently the World Wildlife Federation proclaimed that it would take the equivalent of two more earth's to provide for the nine billion people that will live on the earth by 2050. Fortunately, with the dozens of Moon, millions of asteroids, and the inexhaustible energy from the Sun, we have more than enough for all.
That is a compelling reason.