I have been recently thinking and arguing a lot about NASA’s new uberproject, commonly called the Moon, Mars, and Beyond initiative, or sometimes the Vision for Space Exploration. I’ve argued on several instances that I don’t think the direction that Mike Griffen is currently steering the space program will actually lead to the settlement and development of the solar system. After quite a bit of discussion, I realized that your perspective on what constitutes “space development” or “space exploration” will greatly impact your opinion on how to best go about achieving those goals. In fact, this is a fairly valid general point: your focus determines your path.
If you think that having a small McMurdo-on-the-Moon style lunar science base is space development, then your opinion on what is an ideal method to accomplish that will differ quite a bit from someone like me who doesn’t see the moon as settled until there are dozens of settlements and hundreds of thousands of people living and working there.
If you’re only planning on sending a few people a year to a small government camp, with no intention of ever opening the moon up to commercial exploitation, building a big Shuttle Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle may make a perverse amount of sense. If on the other hand you actually want to make money on the moon through say, lunar tourism, you realize that the only way you’ll ever get the costs low enough is if you have some sort of reusability built into your transportation system. Which means biting the bullet with on-orbit rendezvous, docking, propellant transfer, and vehicle assembly.
If your goal is to get back to the moon as soon as reaonably possible, you might decide to just give a big contract to a large government contractor, and pull enough technical expertise back into NASA to manage the project and see it through. You might think in such a situation that it would be irresponsible or risky to give money to smaller, unproven aerospace companies. However if your goal is to actually promote the settlement of the solar system, you quickly realize that unless most of what happens in space are market-driven activities nothing much will happen. You might realize then that trying to catalyze the development of a vibrant and innovative commercial space sector is important. More important then getting new US flags on the lunar surface, more important than maintaining pointless make-work-scheme-for-nerds jobs in key congressional districts, more important than finding out if microbial life ever existed on Mars, more important than sending a cool, glitzy, next-to-useless probe to the Moon before 2008, more important then subsidizing bloated overmerged government contractors, more important than keeping wind-tunnels open in Virginia, Ohio, and California, and yes, even more important then keeping a aging space telescope still sending back pretty pictures for peoples’ screensavers. If you realize the importance of catalyzing the commercial space sector, you might even find that in so doing you’ll actually get where you want to go quicker than by just throwing more money down the BoeLock hole. There are few paths between any two locations that takes longer than a shortcut.
Let’s do it right this time Mike.