- a proposal for America’s space program during the current Administration -


Is it the purpose of a national space program to "excite" the public?

Adjusted for inflation, in today's dollars, the Apollo program averaged about $21 billion a year. NASA's average space budget (again in today's dollars) since the end of the space program has been about $19 billion a year. So, we have about the same space budget as the Apollo program's average.

Year after year after year, the public elects representatives who choose to fund our space program at about $20B per year. Through our representatives, we choose to have a space program about as large as that of the rest of the world combined. Through our federal budget, we have chosen to spend a modest amount (about 0.4% of the federal budget) on space. Why?

Public surveys indicate that NASA is the most popular of the federal agencies. But, it is correct to state that the support for the space program is "a mile wide and an inch deep". Both the public and our elected representatives broadly like the space program even if we don't necessarily understand it very well. The space program often survives the cutting board pretty well and it enjoys bipartisan support (a pretty rare quality nowadays). Our representatives would be loathed to end America's space program believing that a great country deserves a great space program.

So the public through their representatives have consistently maintained a decent-sized space program. This is a reflection that the American taxpayer wants to spend a modest amount of our money on space. And why not? We are a democracy and we have the right to spend our money as we choose.

But there is an important question. How much value are we getting for our space budget?

The Apollo program not only successfully achieved the goal of beating the Soviets to the Moon, it inspired generations. It is documented that the pursuit of science at all levels of education increased significantly during this time period. It became common to say, "If we are able to land a man on the Moon, then why can't we _________". The Apollo program gave our nation a sense of confidence and the rest of the world viewed the United States as being very competent and hence the leading country in the world. To this very day we take pride in having placed a man on the Moon.

Ask a typical American to state the name of any American in space now and what they are doing. In general, the public barely knowns that we have an International Space Station and very few know the name of any astronaut on it nor what they are doing. Is this the best that we can get for a budget 2/3rds of the size as the Apollo program (adjusted for inflation)?

The Plan for Sustainable Space Development (PSSD) proposes a direction for America's space program that wouldn't require any substantial increase in NASA's budget but would deliver a series of accomplish of historic significance and incredible inspiration not only to our own public but that of the world. We can be far ahead in the space leadership if we so choose.

Unfortunately, the likely paths being discussed fail the four principles upon which the PSSD is based. Although crewed return to the Moon seems to be back on the table, the plan for NASA seems to be expensive, and delayed going through a Gateway in lunar orbit, starting with uncrewed landers, and with no clear plan for how crew will go to the Moon in a sustainable manner. Meanwhile, a real journey to Mars has to await for funding to be freed up. It seems unlikely that the current Administration will accomplish great things in space if they consent to the current plan. But consider the public impact if this proposed Plan for Sustainable Space Development were pursued.

It could start with an announcement of the committment to a rapid strategy for pursuing an accelerated Mars starting with an early flyby mission while simultaneously pursuing a cost-effecting, near-term strategy of lunar development establishing humanity's first, permanent foothold off Earth. "Permanent foothold" means the beginning of actual settlement. We would know if the decision makers were serious about the plan if it included the development of reusable, full-scale (human-ratable) cryogenic lunar lander(s), a telerobotic ice harvester, and an initial, inflatable habitat. Anything less than this means that they are effectively kicking the can down to a succeeding administration. Signing an agreement for a set of Falcon Heavy launches would also show that the program is serious and moving forward quickly.

If the lander and habitat are being developed then there will be a need to start educating, training, selecting crew. Opening up America's historic, initial crew would inspire young people around the world with the resulting news reports similar to Mars One but much more realistic due to the funding available. Every step of selection would be very news worthy as would the reports of the training.

The Terrestrial Demonstrator with the full-scale XEUS lander conducting the full terminal lander sequence would show that such a lander is possible in the near-term. Any skepticism about the Plan would be blunted by this demonstration.

Every robotic mission would be understood by the public as a real step towards a permanent human presence on the Moon. The Resource Prospector Mission results would indicate how the ice could be harvested and confirm the organics found by the LCROSS mission. The first uncrewed landing of the XEUS would be correctly viewed by the public as indicating that the crew missions were not far off. Most definitely this would be true with the landing, covering, inflation, and preparation of the UniHab.

The two-by-two landing of the initial crew of eight would be through the roof in terms of public interest throughout the world. In no way would this be a repeat of the Apollo program. These people are going to stay in a habitat. They are going with their spouses. There's a dog for Pete's sake! Weekly program from the Moon showing the latest progress towards becoming increasingly Earth independent would reinforce the historic nature of this program.

As each international crew were to arrive, their activities would be reported in the international news. But those countries whose astronauts were on the Moon would be suspending classes so that their children could watch their heros exploring the Moon in their language and sharing their culture. The gratitude to the United States for making this possible would be immense.

The repition of this process on Mars with the first crew of eight there would likewise garner great interest. And, as private individuals start moving, some of whom would be well known and so reported, the world would understand that a new branch of humanity was beginning to develop.

Compared to a few civil servants hanging out in a small station in lunar orbit, the Plan for Sustainable Space Development is far more bold while being very cost-effective.

Each step in the Plan would be inspirational and exciting.

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