Sunday, August 2, 2009

NASA's Option 5: Deep Space Flight

My last Blog outlined what I thought at the time were the four most likely paths NASA's manned program could take in the coming decades. In brief, they were:

1. Return To The Moon
2. Flight To Mars
3. Space Stations/Orbital Infrastructure
4. Asteroid Exploration and Exploitation

However, according to THIS linked article from the New York Times a panel looking into exactly this issue has come up with a fifth intriguing possibility: deep space flights with no landings.

The panel is calling it by the rather PR-safe title of the "Flexible Path" option, one created as much out of budgetary realities as by the desire to push the US's space capabilities forward. The Space Station is very close to completion, and public opinion is making it very clear that it won't be abandoned anytime soon, as the previous administration had planned to do in a few short years.

However, keeping the ISS going will eat up a portion of the manned space program that wasn't otherwise anticipated, so in order to save money, the panel hit upon the idea of deep space flights for their own sake. Presumably, these flights will do close flybys of important destinations, such as the Moon, Mars, and nearby asteroids, but won't make any provisions for manned landings. The idea is to build up a deep space flight capabilities first as a framework for more ambitious missions to follow in the decades after.

Though this is obviously a compromise solution that will prove a disappointment to many if adopted, it does offer concrete benefits nonetheless. Developing both advanced long-range propulsion technology and the means to create long-enduring space-borne habitats are very important to any plan for expanding a human presence beyond the Earth-Moon system. This strategy would put an emphasis on both kinds of technology, and without having to concentrate on things like landers and planet/moon/asteroid outposts, both capabilities could be advanced faster. Experience with space habitat systems on board the ISS would actually prove very valuable in developing the systems needed for these deep-space flights.

Hopefully, whatever path the administration chooses--either the 'Flexible Path' option discussed here or one of the others discussed in the last Blog--the important thing is that they stick to it long enough to actually accomplish something of value out from it. Hopefully, at least for the sake of the manned space program, we can only hope political winds don't shift too much, or if they do, any new political faction that comes to power will realize the importance of sticking with a long-term plan for space exploration.

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