Thirty years ago today, as Apollo 11 made its "giant leap for mankind" by landing on the moon, many believed our nation was embarking on an era of space exploration that held unlimited promise. The end of the space race was merely the beginning of the human potential in space flight. America's technological might and collective will had brought us to the moon in less than a decade. Could Mars be far behind?
Few doubted it was. Like the general public, NASA scientists fully expected a manned flight to the Martian surface before the century ended. Werner von Braun, the German engineer who designed the Saturn V rocket used for the Apollo missions, outlined a U.S. space agenda for 2000 that included a manned base on Mars and a jetliner for ferrying passengers between Earth and the moon.
Space exploration captured the popular imagination in those early days. The success of the Apollo missions inspired a generation of talented scientists, mathematicians, engineers, pilots and aviators to join the space program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But today the space program is adrift, lacking both a clear mission and the strong support of the public. As Congress prepares to reauthorize NASA, the question becomes: Can the program be put back on track?
It can, but some realignment is necessary. The main culprit derailing U.S. space exploration has been the unacceptably high cost of conducting launches. The Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program was a superb engineering feat, yet it was hardly economical. An expendable marvel, each rocket could be used only once. In the Apollo program, sending a payload into space cost a then-staggering $3,800 per pound, an expense justified by our national mandate to beat the Soviets to the moon.
Since the cost of using three-stage "disposable" rockets could not be sustained, NASA in the early 1970s developed the space shuttle, a partially reusable system that could return from launches largely intact. But when the Nixon administration halved the shuttle's budget, NASA engineers were forced to abandon technological innovations. This drove operational costs higher: Sending the shuttle into orbit today tops $10,000 per pound. So expensive are shuttle flights that the commercial space industry and the U.S. military now rely on rockets not much more advanced than those used in the early 1960s. Today's rocket fleet, with the exception of the shuttle, is completely expendable.
Bringing these costs down to earth is the only way the U.S. can hope to pay for projects that reinvigorate the sense of mission forged by the early space pioneers. Congress can help bring space exploration back within reach by encouraging NASA to develop a fully reusable rocket. Several designs are already on the drawing board.
Perhaps the most promising short-term solution is what are known as "fly-back" boosters. These are rockets that would help lift payloads into space, fly themselves back to Earth, land and be available for multiple reuses. The shuttle uses boosters that parachute into the ocean and require expensive recoveries, as well as an expendable external fuel tank.
Intermediate steps such as fly-back boosters would discourage the use of expendable rockets that sap funds better spent on space exploration or space science. But the boosters are at best a transition technology on the road to lowering launch costs, which calls for a fully reusable two-stage rocket that takes off from Earth with both elements returning to fly again. A two-stage system would plug the money drain and allow the United States to focus again on the dream of returning to the moon and from there to Mars. Another benefit would be the opening of space to the general public early in the new millennium.
NASA does plan to send a manned mission to Mars, but not until 2014 at the earliest. As Congress reauthorizes the agency, it should call for permanent moon bases and manned missions to Mars, as well as identify steps NASA can take to lower launch costs and increase reliability. Presidential candidates would do well to highlight how a revived space program could strengthen our economy and support U.S. national security.
The elaborate space program envisioned by the late film director Stanley Kubrick in "2001: A Space Odyssey" will not arrive as early as many had hoped, but neither must it remain confined to the realm of science fiction. Amending the program is the next "small step" toward command of the last frontier.