When the future plans and missions of the United States in space come to be ruled entirely by its shrunken NASA budget and “commercial considerations,” then Americans must abandon their hopes to collaborate in the real future leaps of mankind in the Solar System. With the greatest opportunities for collaboration with the most dynamic other space-faring programs, America should be planning for its future in space scientifically, as did the great designers Wernher von Braun and Krafft Ehricke. They were not planning to a budget, but to the limits of human powers and progress.
A month ago the New York Times splashed on its front page a completely unworkable shortcut, supposedly to build “Trumpian” great projects of infrastructure by collecting user-fees and partnering with private funds. Now the Times is promoting cheap Mars, by assembling a spacecraft in Mars orbit and then sending astronauts to orbit Mars in it for a while, and then come back.
The scheme came to the Times, not from a salesman like Elon Musk, but from an obviously demoralized scientist-astronaut, Dr. John Grunsfeld. But it is explicitly tailored to “fit in the existing NASA budget,” spending the space-station money, after that is abandoned and China, and perhaps India and others, are operating space stations on the way to development of the Moon.
The most fundamental scientific powers and interests of the United States are involved here, and are being trashed. Having let its space program atrophy, it cannot make a cheap “Mars end- run” around all the space-faring nations who are designing human exploration and development of the Moon, led by China’s plan soon to visit the Moon’s unique far side, where no human presence has yet been.
First, the health of all astronauts who might spend a weightless 18 months in such a Mars-orbiting voyage would be put in grave danger for the rest of their lives. The way to travel to Mars is by nuclear (fission and fusion power) propulsion systems which can potentially cut the trip to weeks. And if possible, to launch the trip from the Moon, not the Earth. Until then, obviously, robots should be in Mars orbit and on its surface.
Second, the path to fusion power breakthroughs is directly linked to space exploration — Moon industrialization — in scientific cross-fertilization of the two, and in the unique presence on the Moon of the ideal fusion reaction fuel, Helium-3, if it can be converted and returned to Earth. Both need to be “crash programs,” together they can revolutionize human economy. The potentials for this were described in wonderful detail decades ago by Ehricke, who designed NASA’s Centaur upper-stage rocket among others.
Third, the “strategic defense of Earth” from potential asteroid or comet strikes is an essential part of mankind’s progress into exploration of the Solar System and galaxy.
Finally, these frontiers of science and technology require the United States and European space programs to partner with, above all, China, India, and Russia. This is where the opportunity lies for multiplying each nation’s potential, with those nations with the most rapidly expanding and dynamic space and fusion programs.
Sticking within the current budget is a mistake. The United States should attempt no “end runs” in isolation; they will not work for mankind.