On Space Exploration

I have been literally inundated by a request. It would seem that 50% of my readers would like me to post my thoughts on space exploration (you know who you are!) So, by a greater margin than your average presidential election, you win!

In other news, I leave for London tomorrow. Just me, a backpack, and a friend. I'll post a moving travelogue when I get back!


Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel. We'll make steady progress -- one mission, one voyage, one landing at a time (Bush, 2004).

On January 14th, 2004 President George W. Bush announced a radical shift in the policy of the United States regarding space exploration. Called the Vision for Space Exploration, the plan involves completing the International Space Station (ISS) and retiring the Space Shuttle by 2010, developing a new Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2014, and returning to the Moon by 2020 (Bush, 2004). The plan has been touted as an answer to the aging Space Shuttle program, and the disastrous loss of the Columbia in 2003 (Klotz, 2005). Many scientists believe that the new exploration program is too costly, lacks versatility, and detracts from the pure science missions that have brought NASA such success in recent years (Fillion, 2006 and La Page, 2005). I believe that the rush to retire the space shuttle has clouded the judgment of NASA, the Administration, and the wider scientific community, and caused them to ignore the potential for a shuttle replacement.

The push for the next generation of spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), has become the main priority of NASA (Griffin, 2006). The general design of the spacecraft is a departure form the reusable “spaceplane” concept of the Space Shuttle Orbiter, and bears a striking resemblance to the Apollo missions of four decades ago. The CEV and it’s launch vehicles will reuse many of the propulsion systems of the Space Shuttle, including the massive solid rocked boosters that propel the craft into orbit and the main engines that assist in ascent and slow the Shuttle for reentry. Once in space, the CEV will be capable of docking with the ISS to exchange crews and re-supply the station. The more ambitious use that he spacecraft has been designed for is a lunar landing. By using a lander much like the one from the Apollo program, the CEV will allow four astronauts to explore the lunar surface and return safely to the Earth (Reddy 2006). With minor redesigns, the spacecraft could evolve to perform a mission to Mars (Kluger, 2006).

Initial funding for the CEV project has been approved as part of the FY 2007 budget of NASA (Griffin, 2006), and the total cost is expected to be, conservatively, $104 billion (Fillion, 2006). Steps are being taken at the Kennedy Space Center to adapt launch and construction facilities to accept the CEV and it’s launch vehicles (Coppinger, 2006). The future of the Space Shuttle is not in question. Once the International Space station has been completed in 2010, the shuttle will be retired and the CEV will be brought on-line in a near earth orbit capacity (Dale 2006).

The magnitude of this project, and it’s cost to the scientific missions currently being planned by NASA, is one of the biggest sources of criticism from the scientific community. Michael Griffin, the head of NASA, stated before congress “…I believe that fulfilling our commitments on the International Space Station and bringing the Crew Exploration Vehicle online in a timely manner, not later than 2014 and possibly much sooner, is a higher priority than these science missions during this period,” (Griffin 2006). The science mission that Mr. Griffin alludes to include programs like Deep Impact, the mission that gave us our first glimpse of cometary composition; Hubble, the space telescope that has made plain the wonders of the universe; Cassini, the probe that is providing humanity with a wealth of data about Saturn; The Mars Rovers, which have lasted far past their expected lifetime and provided evidence of water on the red planet; and finally New Horizons, the probe currently en route to Pluto. These missions have provided massive return on the investment made in them.

The CEV program shares more in common with the Apollo program than design and mission, it may share it’s fate. Henry Vanderbilt, a member of the Space Access Society, stated “Like Apollo, NASA’s new plan has built into it the seeds of its shutdown by some future Congress once the warm glow of the first few daring missions has once again faded,” (Klotz, 2005). In the same BBC news article, the program was criticized for being unable to build the permanent bases on the Moon and Mars as promised in the initial Vision for Space Exploration.

I believe that the rush to create the CEV is the natural result of the failures of the Space Shuttle program. An analysis of the literature reveals an attitude of hatred toward the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. They are viewed as money pits that provide no scientific returns (La Page, 2005). I disagree with this sentiment. The Space Shuttle and the ISS have shown us that practical human spaceflight is an attainable goal, and that massive construction projects in space are feasible. I think what we need, rather than a huge step backward to the Apollo program, is a step forward that builds on these two lessons.

My vision of America’s next spacecraft is very much like the Space Shuttle. We have learned many lesions with the venerable Shuttle, but I agree that it is time to retire the fleet. They are becoming old and dangerous, and have always been too complicated. What is needed for the future exploration of the Solar System is a simple, reliable, efficient, and versatile space utility vehicle.

Safety should clearly the primary concern of any manned vehicle traveling into space. The current Space Shuttle has no crew escape system during the ascent phase. Such a feature has been included on every NASA spacecraft until the Shuttle, and could have saved the lives of the Challenger crew. Any future vessel should have such a system. The thermal protection system for reentry should also be as advanced and reliable as possible, but should also be easily serviceable and have a redundant protection system in case of a localized failure. While in orbit, the craft should be able to dock with the ISS and provide the crew safe harbor in case reentry is impossible.

Efficiency is another area where the new spacecraft should surpass it’s predecessors. The Space Shuttle only reuses the Orbiter and solid rocket boosters from mission to mission. It then requires months of downtime to service and repair every system on the spacecraft. The new space vehicle should be able to perform missions without wasting major components, and without long delays between launches. The vehicle should also be versatile, capable of delivering payloads or crews to space, aiding in construction of space structures, launching satellites, and servicing space stations and telescopes. There could also be versions of the spacecraft that were unmanned. Launching a robotic vehicle of this scale is possible, as was proven by the Russians when they launched and successfully landed their space shuttle without a crew on board.

This would seem to preclude the exploration of other planets, but it does not. The primary task of the updated space utility vehicle would be the construction of a spacedock. This orbiting space construction yard would be the logical launching pad for missions to the Moon and Mars. Because ships would be constructed in this spacedock, they can be much larger than if they were launched as a unified whole. They would be much better exploration vehicles for long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars, because they would be able to carry much more in the way of provisions and support equipment. It would also be much cheaper to launch from space, because the vehicles do not have to return to Earth. By rendezvousing with the space dock on return to the planet, crews and materials could be ferried back to Earth by the space utility vehicles.

Such a thing is feasible, and has been for some time. What is lacking is the will to perform the task. By returning to the Moon and Mars with updated versions of forty year old spacecraft, what are we proving? Simply that the old designs still work, and that is hardly scientific advancement. By seeking new solutions to new problems, we have a chance to stimulate the scientific potential of the world, and achieve things undreamt of by our predecessors. The first step to achieving this vision is to put a stop to the current direction of NASA, and return to the drawing board with fresh ideas. We need a Vision of Space Exploration that justifies the billions of dollars and dozens of lives invested in the Space Shuttle.


Bush, G.W. “New Visions for Space Exploration.” NASA Headquarters. 14 Jan. 2004.

Coppinger, R. (2006). NASA Space Center facilities modernized ahead of Crew

Exploration Vehicle flights. Flight International. http://www.flightglobal.com/Articles/2006/03/28/Navigation/200/205707/NASA+Kennedy+Space+Center+facilities+modernised+ahead+of+Crew+Exploration+Vehicle.html.

Dale, S. “Remarks by NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale at the 9th annual

Commercial Space Transportation Conference” Federal Aviation Administration.

Washington, D.C. 10 Feb. 2006.

Fillion, R. (2006, March 13). CEV billions criticized as threat to science missions. Rocky

Mountain News. N.P.

Griffin, M. “Statement by Michael Griffin before the House Appropriations

Subcommittee on Science, Depts of State, Justice, & Commerce, & Related

Agencies” US Congress. Washington D.C. 30 Mar. 2006.

Klotz, M. (2006, September 20). Moon plan ‘comes up short.’ BBC News.


Kluger, J. (2006, March 20). Returning to the Moon. Time. 167(12), 96.

Krause, T.R. (2005, August 16th). To Boldly (and Safely) Go …. Wall Street Journal,

p. B2.

Le Page, M. (2006). To Pointlessly go…. New Scientist. 187(2513), 21.

Reddy, F. (2006, February). NASA’s next giant leap. Astronomy. 34(2), 62-68.