If the Constellation program for lunar flights is terminated, in its place NASA would strengthen science and technology research and study options for human flights to asteroids and the moons of Mars. The new direction was made official on April 15 when President Obama spoke about his vision for space exploration, calling specifically for a human visit to a NEA by 2025. Additional perspective on this new asteroid focus can be found in an address on April 26 by NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, and in a background interview with Wes Huntress, former NASA Associate Administrator for Science and President of the Planetary Society.
REMARKS OF PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA ON SPACE EXPLORATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Kennedy Space Center, April 15, 2010
... We are setting a course with specific and achievable milestones. Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the Moon into deep space. We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. Now, critical to deep space exploration will be the development of breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies. So I'm challenging NASA to break through these barriers. And I know you will - as always - with ingenuity and intensity.
... I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But the simple fact is, we have been there before. There is a lot more space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do. I believe it is more important to ramp up our capabilities to reach - and operate at - a series of increasingly demanding targets, while advancing our technological capabilities with each step outward. That is what this strategy does. And that is how we will ensure that our leadership in space is even stronger in this new century than it was in the last.
ADDRESS BY LORI GARVER, NASA DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR
Center for Strategic and International Studies
April 26, 2010
... Before we reach the surface of Mars with humans, we'll explore an asteroid, by 2025. The President announced that unprecedented goal in Florida. NASA engineers have been looking at candidates for a NEO mission that could launch in 2025. Because of orbital dynamics, launch date drives the specific destination. We are discovering new NEOs all the time, so our list of targets will certainly expand over the coming years. One intriguing candidate is asteroid 1999AO10, which we could reach with a 2025 launch on a 150 day round trip mission, spending about 2 weeks at the asteroid.
But why would we want to visit an asteroid in the first place? Why are these space rocks such compelling destinations for humans? First, they provide an intermediate destination for human exploration, with round trip times significantly longer than the Moon but shorter than Mars. They also don't require a high gravity landing, perhaps making them even more accessible than the Moon from a hardware development standpoint. Next, asteroids are fascinating scientifically, as evidenced by the National Academy's endorsement of their exploration in Decadal Surveys and other reports. They are remnants of the birth of our solar system - they preserve the primitive materials from which our earth, and possibly even life, formed. Some asteroids are very rich in valuable metals, and may be important space resources. And finally, we know NEOs are important for life on Earth because they have affected our evolution through mass extinctions they have caused.
The bottom line is, NEOs represent one of only a handful of threats that could wipe out humanity. It is not a question of WHETHER we will be hit by an extinction-scale NEO in the future, but merely WHEN this will happen. Only by gaining experience operating at these objects might it be possible to someday prevent one from changing the course of humanity's future. One issue with exploring NEOs with humans is that the U.S. has only operated around the largest NEO, with the robotic mission NEAR. The Japanese have visited another. But most of these objects are still very mysterious to us. We know very little about 1999AO10, potentially our most promising target. This is where our Exploration Precursor Robotic missions come into play. With these missions, we can explore potential candidates, and provide ground truth for our Earth-based telescopic observations of NEOs.
These are truly tangible reasons for making a NEO, one of our first destinations for humans in deep space. And I have to add, it is incredible how well Hollywood taps in to the psyche and true desires of the public, so having something appear in a movie is not necessarily a bad thing. The public is fascinated by NEOs, and I am sure they are also a little afraid, to be honest. A recent poll just completed by the Everett Group found that sixty-three percent of those who said exploring space was at least somewhat important cited protecting the Earth from collisions with comets and asteroids as a major reason for continuing that exploration. NASA has been working, and in the new budget ramps up, the activity of cataloging and characterizing NEOS. If one is going to pose a danger to Earth, we need to know about it, and by visiting one, we'll have that much better of an understanding of what it might take to mitigate potential future collisions.
A mission to a NEO will also test our deep space propulsion systems, since we're talking about 5 million miles of travel as opposed to around 239,000 to reach the Moon. They'll test our ability to orient ourselves and explore on an alien world. They'll test the habitat, radiation protection and life support systems we'll be developing for human beings in deep space. All in all, they're a tough destination. And Mars will be even tougher.
POTENTIAL CANDIDATE NEAS FOR HUMAN VISITS
From Rob Landis, NASA ARC / JSC:
Here are the so-called 'Big 6' NEAs that have been identified as potential targets for human visits, together with nominal diameters. None of these has been characterized beyond determining its brightness and orbit.
- 1998 HG49 [143 m]
- 2001 BB16 [104 m]
- 2003 SM84 [100 m]
- 2000 AE205 [ 90 m]
- 2001 QJ142 [ 72 m]
- 2009 OS5 [ 70 m]
- 1999 AO10 [ 60 m]
INTERVIEW WITH WESLEY T. HUNTRESS ON NASA'S NEW STRATEGY
by James Oberg for IEEE Spectrum, April 2010
On 15 April, NASA got its long-awaited marching orders from President
Obama. The agency is to send people to Mars using a series of "stepping-stone" destinations that are themselves of interest: Lagrange points, near-Earth asteroids, and martian moons. The plan is pretty much exactly what
Planetary Society president Wesley T. Huntress Jr. proposed in 2004. James Oberg corresponded with Huntress following President Obama's introduction of the plan.
IEEE Spectrum: How do you feel about the new NASA space plan?
Wesley T. Huntress: I am absolutely delighted with the new direction NASA has received. And the president demonstrated with his visit [to NASA's Kennedy Space Center on 15 April] that he is fully engaged.
Spectrum: How is the president's attention important?
WTH: This is the first time NASA has enjoyed full administration support since Apollo, and it is crucial for sustainability of the program. I like what he said: "[By undertaking this strategy,] we will no longer rely on our past achievements and instead embrace a new and bold course of innovation and discovery." It is exactly the kind of inspiration the space program can bring the entire country.
Spectrum: Why did Constellation-the program to return to the Moon-have to die?
WTH: The old Constellation plan was to go back where we had once been, to do only marginally better than we did 40 years ago. It was neither
inspirational nor sufficiently challenging for a space program as storied as America's.
Spectrum: Does this mean the end of dreams for human exploration of the Moon?
WTH: Others may go there and follow in our footsteps of long ago. Best of luck to them.
Spectrum: What do you see as the main theme of American spaceflight
WTH: We want to be in the lead. We want to be out there, farther out than others dare go, clearing a path beyond the moon and onward to Mars. Mars is where the American public really wants us to go, and we can give them a good game, just like we did with getting to the moon in the 1960s.
Spectrum: How does the new plan accomplish this?
WTH: The new plan is to proceed to Mars step-by-step, making ever farther excursions in space as we develop our technological abilities. [We aim to] proceed to intermediate destinations along the way, beginning with trips to lunar orbit, to the Sun-Earth Lagrange points, to near-Earth asteroids, and finally to the Martian moons before that first trip down to the Martian surface.
Spectrum: What role did you play in developing this strategy?
WTH: This is an approach to human exploration that my team proposed in a four-year study by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) called "The Next Steps in Exploring Deep Space," which was published in early 2004. This same strategy was reemphasized in late 2008 by the Planetary Society's "Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century."
Spectrum: And when you heard the policy explained from the White House, how did you feel?
WTH: Those of us who advocated this plan are gratified. We really felt this plan was an affordable, sustainable, commonsense approach to what should come after Apollo and the space station.
Spectrum: Were you surprised by how much it resembled your plan or were you made aware of ongoing policy discussions within NASA?
WTH: I was not aware of any ongoing policy discussions within NASA. After the Augustine report [the "Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans
Committee," October 2009] showed that Constellation was unaffordable and unsustainable and that there were some bolder and more expansive
possibilities to be considered, I was hopeful that the "flexible approach" option would appeal to the new administration.
Spectrum: Why did you think the administration might go in that
WTH: It just seemed to be the most sensible option even if clearly not the easiest option politically, given Constellation's entrenchment. But politics is not always sensible. I think the right decision has been made, and I am happy to see the administration put some muscle behind its new plan.
Spectrum: What do you think are the chief strengths of the policy?
WTH: The biggest strengths are first that it proposes a more lofty, challenging, and appealing goal to the American public. Second, it proposes a step-by-step, go-as-you-pay, sustainable plan that can proceed as the technology is developed, not a crash program to "get here by this date." Third, it has intermediate and interesting milestones that can be achieved in reasonable timeframes relative to public expectations and political cycles. Fourth, it restores NASA to the agency that it was meant to be-an exploration agency, not a transportation agency, and [an agency that develops] new technologies in a quest that can fire the economic engine of our country. And fifth, it will inspire many more American youngsters to go into science, engineering, and math and to do what has never been done before.
Spectrum: What recommendations from your group were rejected in the new plan?
WTH: In general, pretty much all that we recommended is in the new plan. My key worry was that we had no specific directive to build a heavy launch vehicle, without which we are going nowhere. Now we have a specific plan, and I hope we can have a design well in advance of five years.
Spectrum: How about the president's plan for commercial human transport into orbit?
WTH: I am less interested in who -- government or commercial - builds the transportation system for crew and cargo to low Earth orbit as long as we have one. For crew, perhaps we need a government option as well as a commercial one to reduce risk and have backup options, but for cargo, NASA should no longer be in the trucking business.
Spectrum: Has the stepping-stone strategy evolved on its own in the past two years, and if so, in what ways?
WTH: I don't know that it has evolved much from our IAA plan other than
that the idea seems to have taken this long to gestate and bloom. The
intermediate destinations are essentially the same. The sequence is always flexible.
Spectrum: How challenged do you think the U.S. space industry -- NASA, contractors, Department of Defense, universities -- will be by the proposed strategy? Do you see any chance of slipping into mediocrity?
WTH: Yes, there is a chance of slipping back into mediocrity. The
challenge here for Congress, the NASA human exploration centers, and the contractor base entrenched in Constellation is to be flexible and nimble, to turn toward a fundamentally new program-and in the long term, one that is more exciting and sustainable than we have now. If that challenge is not met well in the congressional season this year, we could easily find ourselves back on the old road.
Spectrum: What role do you speculate might be played by partners from the International Space Station (ISS) alliance?
WTH: The ISS alliance is remarkable and unique. It took a great deal of diplomacy to create, and it is now the model for lessons learned on how to proceed farther into space internationally. I would like to think that we can enlarge the ISS partnership to include all the major players and then have that same alliance repeat this same miracle: to devise how not just the United States but an international consortium can proceed beyond low Earth orbit.
Spectrum: Although the moon is not in the critical path your team laid out, do you envision any side branch programs that would expand robot and eventually human activity there?
WTH: Yes. The Moon is actually on the path; it is lunar surface ops that
are not necessarily critical. Lunar surface excursions should be considered when the resources are available. They should not just be diversionary from the main goal of getting to Mars.
Spectrum: What is important about activities on the Moon?
WTH: The moon could be a practice Mars for astronaut operations, and there is a lot of interesting science and exploration development that can be done on the lunar surface. It is a major step for space-faring nations that have never been there, and it seems to me a real opportunity for the
United States to partner with and assist those nations that want to go there.
Spectrum: How does preserving the Orion command module development support the infrastructure requirements of the stepping-stones approach?
WTH: No matter what the deep-space destination, a crew habitat will be required. Preserving Orion gets the technology development out to an early start even if it is used only as a return vehicle. We will eventually need a deep-space version of Orion with a long-term habitat. If Earth orbit is used as the "assembly and stepping-off" point for deep-space missions, astronauts returning to Earth will require a version of Orion whether by rendezvous in Earth orbit or by direct return.
Spectrum: What role does the extended life of the ISS play in developing
infrastructure for the stepping-stones?
WTH: It is the research laboratory for finding out how to deal with long-term human spaceflight. It is also the exercise room for deep-space astronaut operational training. And it's a platform for testing technologies and flight systems that will be required for deep-space missions.
Spectrum: What do you see as the greatest conceptual breakthrough of this endorsement?
WTH: The idea of Mars as the ultimate destination, and the step-by-step approach as the way to get there, have now found their way into policy.
Spectrum: What else would you like engineers and future engineers to know about the selection of this strategy?
WTH: Simply that it provides for a much more exciting and challenging future.