About the only thing that went wrong on my Washington DC trip (noted earlier here) was having to fight a persistent head cold and trying to avoid shaking hands with our eminent panelists so as not to contaminate them (I want these guys healthy, and working!). But the fates smiled Wednesday morning when I moderated “The Future of the Vision for Space Exploration,” my voice back from what had been near-laryngitis the evening before, and we had a fascinating discussion in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill talking about where space exploration is going and what policy decisions loom large at the moment.
Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society, presented a look at current projects to explore the Solar System, many of which are somewhat off our radar, including Indian lunar missions like Chandrayaan-1 and the Chinese lunar orbiter Chang’e I (images expected by the end of this month). Japan’s space activities beyond the ongoing Hayabusa asteroid return mission also drew attention recently with the Kaguya spacecraft, orbiting Luna since mid-October. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is sending back high-definition videos that should, as Friedman noted, be in their own way as spectacular as the first Apollo 8 images we saw of a newly risen Earth.
What Steven Squyres wouldn’t do with high-definition equipment on his Mars rovers! Squyres, principal investigator for the science payload on the Mars Exploration Rover Project, showed the kind of unforgettable imagery we’ve almost come to take for granted of the Red Planet’s battered surface. At least, we start to take it for granted until we stop and think the matter through. I can remember, as a graduate student, pacing the floor waiting for that first TV image from Viking to come through (the one where they thought they were looking at a blue sky, but subsequently had to re-program to derive the now familiar salmon-colored atmosphere). So I found myself, as others in the room doubtless did, becoming energized about Mars through Squyres’ images all over again.
I think Steven Squyres is a man who has found the exact niche he wanted in life. He is so enthusiastic about what he does, even irrepressible, that when he speaks of addressing an audience of 20,000 students in Detroit (at Ford Field, where the Lions play), you realize how much good he is doing not just as planetary scientist but educator extraordinaire. And he told me that having that constant stream of new Mars imagery coming in each and every day is just what he and other mission planners had in mind. No sequestering of data that would only reach the public in dribbles much later. Instead, a communications-age feast of imagery that gets the attention of even the least space-minded.
Edward Belbruno is going to be doing an interview with me that I’ll publish on Centauri Dreams in installments (we’ll schedule that soon), but for now I’ll note how interesting is the synergy between what Dr. Belbruno does with ‘chaotic’ orbits (applying chaos theory to spacecraft trajectories) and our plans for moving further into the Solar System. This is the man who got the Japanese Hiten spacecraft to the Moon after the failure of the Hagoromo mission, with which all communications had been lost. Hiten was never intended to go to the Moon but was designed solely as a communications relay for Hagoromo. With scant fuel, only a Belbruno-style low fuel route would turn Hiten into a lunar voyager.
The subsequent success brought Belbruno’s work front and center for future mission concepts. You may recall that ESA’s lunar mission SMART-1 used similar orbital strategies. And one thing Belbruno brought up in the panel discussion was that as we move deeper into space, low-energy orbits could play a role in providing the needed supplies. You wouldn’t want to put a human crew on a vehicle that took years to reach a destination like the Moon, but if you’re talking about sending supplies to stock an initial base — or re-supply to a manned outpost on the Moon or Mars — such orbits make immediate sense. What Belbruno described sounded to me like a self-sustaining space-based infrastructure, rather than a series of one-shot missions that would never be repeated.
More on all this when I interview Dr. Belbruno for these pages, and I also have a similar interview lined up with Gregory Matloff, whose talk on solar sail technologies ran through the basics and touched on more exotic uses, such as solar sail methods to assist in asteroid deflection. I thought Dr. Matloff had the best line of the session when he opined in our panel discussion that anyone voting not to fund Arecibo’s planetary radar should be arraigned before the World Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. That’s how strongly some of us feel about losing Arecibo’s watchdog capabilities to help us find potentially dangerous asteroids, and it was good to hear this being said on Capitol Hill.
For many people (though probably not regular Centauri Dreams readers), solar sails are purely theoretical constructs, so I was glad to hear Matloff explaining the history of the concept, dating back to 1974, when the Mariner 10’s mission to Mercury used the radiation pressure from solar photons for attitude control. That ad hoc demonstration said all that needed to be said about the utility of the momentum imparted by photons, and later missions, like the Russian Znamya reflectors or the 1996 thin film antenna unfurled from the Space Shuttle, kept the concept in play (the Znamya missions, to be sure, had their share of problems).
Louis Friedman, of course, had put huge amounts of time and effort into COSMOS-1, which would have been the first sail to go fully operational in space, but that 2005 launch failure was but a temporary setback. The Japanese had already demonstrated sail deployment in 2004 from a suborbital rocket — we’re learning how to do these things. Thinking back, too, to Dr. Friedman’s talk and the array of international missions now in the works, it’s striking that countries less concerned about democratic participation, like China, have in some ways an easier time at articulating a long-term space goal. Democracy is sprawling, messy, and it assumes the public’s support is a major factor in building space policy. Governments without elections to contend with set their own agendas.
Ponder the solar sail itself as seen through the prism of NASA. Work at Marshall Space Flight Center has progressed to the point that the solar sail is close to or at the status of operational viability. In other words, it wouldn’t take much to launch and deploy an actual sail mission in terms of technology. But without the needed funding, such missions don’t happen, which is why space policy can be so difficult to sort out, and so frustrating. That’s one price you pay for democracy, and while I certainly would never want to live under any other form of government, it does account for the fact that our ventures into space sometimes seem to proceed by fits and stars rather than in a stable continuum.
More on all these matters later, but for now, thanks to those who put this session together, especially Lee Billings and Sarah Glasser at Seed Media Group, and thanks, too, to a panel that gathered on relatively short notice and made it all happen. Lee tells me we may have video available of part or all of these sessions, so I’ll plan to link to that whenever possible. I’m struck (once again) by the enthusiasm and vitality space professionals bring to the job at hand. Despite its sometimes daunting setbacks, our venture into space seems unstoppable to me if we can move beyond our focus on the immediate and place it in the context of a gradual, inevitable migration that will help to preserve our planet while opening up vistas that one day will make the Moon and Mars seem tame.