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It's Time to Consider the Future of Manned Space Exploration

Written by James Heiser on September 11 2009.

Space Exploration. Mars and NASAOn May 7, President Obama announced the formation of a U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee with, in the words of the committee’s website, “the goal of ensuring that the nation is on a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving its boldest aspirations in space.” Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, was named as the committee chairman, which at least yielded the committee a less unwieldy monicker than USHSFPC, allowing us to simply call it the “Augustine Committee.”

Of course, everyone should have known that bad news was coming as soon as anyone or anything connected to this administration used words such as “vigorous” or “boldest aspirations.” It seems that the only vigor with which Obama seems familiar is found in vigorous spending, and the only boldness for which his administration seems destined is its audacious pursuit of a governmental, preferably international, solution to every perceived problem. Therefore, there should have been few surprises when the Augustine Committee produced its Summary Report on September 8 calling for more money and ‘international cooperation’ as the answers to most of the questions concerning the future of NASA’s manned missions.

It may be granted that with a budget of $18 billion a year, NASA probably spends less than many federal agencies, and the results of that spending are more readily perceivable than those associated with most government spending. The Mars landers, Lunar orbiter, and of course, the shuttle missions and Hubble space telescope pictures have provided a significant scientific return and have generally been quite inspirational. Certainly for those who are old enough to have witnessed the successes of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the successes of the dawn of the “Space Age” were, and are, a point of national pride.

But where do we go from here?

The opening words of’s analysis of the Summary Report summarize the situation:

American human space exploration is impossible with NASA’s current budget.
The committee tasked with examining NASA’s role in human space flight delivered that finding today while offering a mix of relatively exciting options if the agency can secure an extra $3 billion per year.

The report, posted to the Office of Science and Technology Policy website, does not chart any new territory, but it’s unusually clear about the scale and nature of NASA’s problems. The committee said what needed to be said in the interest of a reality-based space program.
“You shouldn’t underestimate the impact of the basic statement, which is that the path [NASA] is going on is going nowhere,” said David Mindell, a science and technology historian at MIT who lead a different report on NASA’s future last year. “It’s an utter rejection of the Bush plan because it’s unfundable, unbuildable and dangerous. ”

Arguably, appeals for a “reality-based” space program has pretty much fallen on deaf ears ever since the space agency ceased to be destination-driven and seemed to simply become one more federal bureaucracy — literally (rather than simply figuratively) devoted to going around in circles. But what rings strangely upon the ear is to hear such sudden concerns for a “mere” $3 billion a year — a figure which sounds more like the budget for the president’s travel expenses than the cost of sending men back to the Moon and on to Mars. In the year of the TARP bailout, it sounds like NASA would probably have an easier time getting money to build a bridge across the Bering Strait than repeat the deeds accomplished two decades ago.

Of course, it is not as if President Obama or the Augustine Committee are proposing simply saving $18 billion a year by shutting down NASA, and it is not as if the Augustine Committee’s numbers have passed without criticism. But the case seems to be being built for the space agency possibly going into a “hold” mode, as a bureaucracy lurches around looking for something to do that people will care about with the money it continues to receive. Presumably, this is the point Mr. Mindell was trying to make when the called the Bush plan “Unfundable, unbuildable and dangerous.” In reality, such a program is not inherently unfundable — the federal government has funded such programs before. It cannot be “unbuildable” because it has, in essence, been built before. And surely Mindell has not suddenly become aware of the dangers of a space program which have been painfully obvious since the Apollo 1 disaster — any human undertaking is dangerous, it is a question of whether the risk and reward are commensurate.

Fundamental to the observations of the Augustine Committee are two points in particular:

First, space exploration has become a global enterprise. Many nations have aspirations in space, and the combined annual budgets of their space programs are comparable to NASA's. If the United States is willing to lead a global program of exploration, sharing both the burden and benefit of space exploration in a meaningful way, significant benefits could follow. Actively engaging international partners in a manner adapted to today’s multi-polar world could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global resources, and enhance the exploration enterprise.
Second, there is now a burgeoning commercial space industry. If we craft the space architecture to provide opportunities to this industry, there is the potential — not without risk — that the costs to the government would be reduced. Finally, we are also more experienced than in 1961, and able to build on that experience as we design an exploration program. If, after designing cleverly, building alliances with partners, and engaging commercial providers, the nation cannot afford to fund the effort to pursue the goals it would like to embrace, it should accept the disappointment of setting lesser goals.

The poor track record of internationalist schemes for the space program have already been summarized elsewhere. It it worth exploring the possibility left implicit in the second observation. It is observed in the article:

Commercial space advocates are pleased with the report, too. It provides companies like SpaceX with major backing for their efforts to completely take over low-earth orbit launches.

“Based on not just this, but what the Augustine commission members were saying in their public hearings and other public statements that the committee members were making, the message was coming across loud and clear that now is the time to hand over human spaceflight commercially,” said John Gedmark, executive director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “But obviously from our perspective, it’s great to see this come out in print.”

The successes of new companies such as SpaceX has been some of the most heartening news for human space exploration in recent years. Certainly the competition is helpful for the entire industry, and is likely to help reduce launch costs, which will, in turn, make it possible for more private launches of satellites, and could even in time make “space tourism” a reality.

If space exploration is ever to be something more than “flags and footprints” it will have to be of demonstrable worth to the people who are paying for it. Future generations may well remember the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 in the way in which we now look back on Columbus’s journey to the New World in 1492. The reason we remember Columbus today is because when the “government funded” missions stopped, private companies and individuals made the decision to choose the new frontier.

History does not repeat itself, but certainly patterns can be discerned. At some point government will need to get out of the way if space exploration is truly going to expand mankind’s horizons and offer opportunities for a new life, new wealth, and the expansion of human freedom. Expanding the sphere for human ingenuity, creativity, and freedom on earth and outward to a new frontier is a crucial alternative when the environmental extremists rampage on the warpath against the entire modern world and are seemingly caught up in ecstatic visions of a Zero Population Growth/Soylent Green future.

The New World, and later, the American West, offered “somewhere to go” for countless thousands of men and women fleeing the stagnation of self-perpetuating elites in the Old World; they risked their lives and fortunes in the belief that they could build a better future for themselves and their children. Members of many American church bodies can trace their own denomination’s historical roots to groups who made such sacrifices over the centuries on behalf of what they believed. The voyage of the Mayflower— nearly 130 years after Columbus’s first journey to the new world — seemed like a pretty harebrained idea at the time, but from a vantage point nearly four centuries later, it looks inevitable and obvious. A new frontier sounds like a pretty good alternative to the future being served up by the elites who have brought the global economy to its knees, who dream of a “post-American” future, and who rant in fevered tones about reducing human population to ‘more sustainable levels.’


Rt. Rev. James Heiser has served as Pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Malone, Texas, while maintaining his responsibilities as publisher of Repristination Press, which he established in 1993 to publish academic and popular theological books to serve the Lutheran Church.  Heiser has also served since 2005 as the Dean of Missions for The Augustana Ministerium and in 2006 was called to serve as Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America (ELDoNA). An advocate of manned space exploration, Heiser serves on the Steering Committee of the Mars Society. His publications include two books; The Office of the Ministry in N. Hunnius' Epitome Credendorum (1996) and A Shining City on a Higher Hill: Christianity and the Next New World (2006), as well as dozens of journal articles and book reviews.

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