On July 14, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met to discuss three topics, among them an update from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and its leading commercial space industry partners on the progress being made in new frontiers in human space exploration. Other topics on the meeting agenda included a review of the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program and a discussion on technology and aging. This FYI will focus on the presentations and discussion on the human space exploration topic.
The primary focus of the human space exploration session was the series of multiple coordinated, long-term efforts NASA and its international and commercial partners are undertaking and planning to undertake in working toward a mission to Mars as early as the 2030s. Among these efforts are the International Space Station (ISS) already in operation; the Space Launch System heavy launch lift vehicle under development; the Orion space capsule under development; the commercial crew program in its infancy; and plans for several mission stages with increasing degrees of independence from Earth over the next few decades, culminating in a manned mission to Mars. Testifying before PCAST on this topic were Charles Bolden, Jr., the NASA Administrator; William (Bill) Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations; Garrett Reisman, the Director of Crew Operations for SpaceX; and John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration at Boeing.
Bolden began by trumpeting the major NASA development that had been announced earlier that day, the arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft to the dwarf planet Pluto and the release of the first high-resolution photos of Pluto. Holding back tears, Bolden shared how important a moment this was for him, the United States, and the rest of humankind. Said Bolden: “Today’s a huge day for those of you sitting around and look like you’re a lot younger than I am. If you’re students, try to remember where you were this morning. This is not like Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the moon, but this morning the United States became the only nation in the history of humanity to visit every single planet in our solar system. That’s a big deal… I get emotional about that because that’s a big deal.”
Bolden proceeded to give an overview of NASA, explaining it is a multi-mission agency with four major directorates: the Science Mission Directorate, Space Technology Mission Directorate, Aeronautics Mission Directorate, and Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Bolden’s key point was that all four of the major NASA directorates are now working together in an unprecedented way toward the common goal of getting humankind to Mars. Bolden explained: “What I hope to do…is help you understand how we’re now intertwining those four directorates, as it has never been done before, into a singular effort to get humans farther into the solar system than ever before, to get humans to Mars, and if it works, get us there in the period of the 2030s, and we’ve got a stepping stone approach to doing that.”
Bolden articulated the nation’s rationale for a mission to Mars by appealing to American values, heritage, and history. The United States, he argued, is about exploration and expansion through the colonization of new places. Said Bolden: “We are going farther into the solar system, except this time we’re going to stay. This is not about sending a man to a body and bringing them safely back to Earth. This is about moving humanity farther into the solar system and establishing a foothold where we can remain time in memorial….Through the history of humanity, we’ve always been confronted with crossing the next river, or crossing the next mountain, or going beyond something…. It is the story of the journey West, you know, of the early pilgrims and other people landing on the shores of the United States, but then just not being satisfied and continually moving west and exploring, and so, we’re now trying to get off this planet and farther out.” Mars, Bolden added, is only the first destination for humanity off this planet and out into the solar system, and our ultimate destination is still unknown.
Bolden pointed out that, much like the ISS, the Mars effort will be an international effort, with multiple nations participating. The “starting five” as he called them are the five nations that run the ISS today: the European Space Agency; the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos; NASA; the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA; and the Canadian Space Agency. Bolden expects other nations will join the effort as well: “India, China, you name them, on and on and on, are beginning to come into the fore and with our leadership and our assistance can become effective members of the team.”
Gerstenmaier emphasized that the journey to Mars will come in small steps that will eventually lead to a final mission to send humans to the Red Planet. Said Gerstenmaier: “This isn’t going to happen instantaneously. This isn’t a single mission. This isn’t a single activity. This is a multi-decadal activity we’re putting together. We’re building first pieces of that with the Space Launch System heavy lift launch vehicle, the Orion space capsule, the crew that goes to station and station activities. They all fit in this journey piece.” In particular, Gerstenmaier organized the journey into three stages, each with increasing independence from the Earth, progressive steps toward the final goal of complete independence. Gerstenmaier explained what each step along the way might look like: “The three regions that we talk about, we talk about Earth reliant. That’s where we are with the Space Station. We need to use the space station and its unique abilities to really understand what it takes to have long duration human space flight to make sure the human can actually tolerate the environments that are required for the human body to adapt….The proving ground region is around the moon and the key thing there…is the return time. The return time now is days away on the moon. You go to the far side of the moon, you lose communications with the Earth….We need to understand the risk reduction techniques, the risk reduction capabilities in the region around the moon before we’re ready to commit to that third region, which is the Earth independent region....So this is again a journey encompassing all three of those regions.”
Reisman, representing SpaceX, emphasized that the work of his company in advancing human space flight is rooted in a mission fully aligned with NASA’s. Said Reisman: “Mars, as Charlie [Bolden] mentioned, is the ultimate goal of the agency, [and] also is the ultimate goal of our company. Really, the company [SpaceX] was founded to make humans a multi-planetary species.” Reisman focused on the role that SpaceX is playing in reducing the cost of human space flight, which he argued will be critical to succeeding on the journey to Mars. “Reusability is a big thing that SpaceX is really working towards,” said Reisman, “and it’s not just reusability. It’s affordable and rapid reusability. That’s our goal and we think that’s necessary to achieve the next major reduction in the cost of access to space…. Rapid affordable reusability we think is going to change the economics of space flight and lead to incredibly wonderful things in low Earth orbit and beyond, hopefully enabling all the things that NASA is working on.”
A number of the panelists had strong praise for the ISS, which is widely seen as a successful international space partnership and, as Gerstenmaier outlined, is seen by NASA as a critical step on the journey to Mars. Elbon, whose company Boeing served as the primary contractor for the ISS, detailed some of the scientific breakthroughs that have emerged from ISS research: “There is a potential cure for Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy that’s being tested in Asoka, Japan. It’s an awful disease. If we can cure that based on research done on station, that’s a huge deal. There are water filtration systems that were developed on station that are now deployed in remote areas to filter water for people. We’ve got new treatments for osteoporosis based on research done on station. So the science that is coming out is having a huge impact and very important.”
Bolden also spoke to the “incredible value” of the ISS but was clear that NASA will now be turning its focus to other frontiers as the ISS transitions from government to commercial operation: “It is a one-of-a-kind laboratory, but it has a finite lifetime. We’ve established that by 2028 the International Space Station just is gone. From an engineering perspective, as it stands today, it will no longer be able to be sustained….We think you’ll never see anything like the International Space Station again, in its size and structure, nor should you see that, because our purpose in life is to try to facilitate the success of a commercial space industry that takes over and allows NASA to take the step away from being Earth reliant to becoming an organization that’s in the proving ground.”
During the question and answer period, PCAST co-chair John Holdren, who is Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, asked all four panelists to identify what advanced technologies or capabilities which we do not have today would greatly expedite and improve our capacity to carry out ambitious human missions. Bolden replied that we need a game changer in space propulsion: “Eight months to Mars is too long. We can do it better.” Gerstenmaier brought up a few new technologies currently under development that he believes will be instrumental in NASA’s journey to Mars: 3D printing and advanced food and vitamin delivery. On 3D printing, he explained: “We print a tool, we use a tool, we grind a tool back up, it makes more feed stock to print another device. We think that lowers the amount of mass, the amount of equipment you need to carry with you.” Reisman added that SpaceX is working to develop a key capability for propulsive landing: “We’ve been very successful in getting rovers on the surface of Mars, using things like airbags and other entry and descent and landing technologies, but a lot of those technologies are not scalable. Finding a good way to get something large, which we’re going to need really big things, on the surface of Mars, requires a new technology. NASA is trying various decelerators, and looking at that, but we really think that the answer is propulsive landing.” Elbon chimed in as well, saying that “improved closed loop environmental control and life support systems” will be important to reduce the logistics needed for oxygen, water, and other life-sustaining elements.
The final exchange of the hour-long session on human space exploration was initiated by PCAST member Dan Schrag, who is a Professor of Geology and Environmental Science at Harvard University and studies climate change. Schrag commended NASA’s efforts in human space exploration but also pointed out that it is “a revolutionary time in Earth observations as well, extraordinary new capabilities.” Schrag expressed great concern that Earth sciences had come “under attack” recently, pointing out that a recently passed appropriations bill in the House would subject NASA Earth Sciences to a 32 percent cut. Said Schrag: “Devastating is a gross understatement for how severely this would impact our abilities to understand our own planet and observe the changes that are happening.” Schrag then asked Bolden what he was doing to protect the Earth Sciences budget, and he asked Reisman what SpaceX is thinking about in the domain of earth science. In his reply, Bolden made clear he is taking the threat to NASA Earth Sciences seriously: “We are doing everything that we can in the power of my position to communicate with the powers that be, both on Capitol Hill and in and around the White House, to help people understand the critical importance of Earth observations and earth science, and understanding the change that’s occurring to our climate.”