The 40-Year-Old Dream
Sykes, CEO and director of the Tucson-based Planetary Science Institute, has a poster hanging in his office that shows astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the moon next to an American flag. The caption reads: “Remember your dreams THEN of NOW.”
When that photo was taken in 1969, Americans believed they would lead the way into space and by 2009 people would be working in well-established colonies on the Moon and Mars and even in space habitats, Sykes said.
Instead, after hundreds of billions of dollars spent and the loss of many lives in our human space-flight endeavors, NASA has announced plans to abandon and de-orbit its only platform in space — the International Space Station. The orbiting platform will be scuttled in 2016, only five years after its completion.
“This is a tragic waste that reveals the ongoing hollowness of U.S. human space-flight policy,” Sykes said.
“The ball is now in President Obama’s court,” Sykes said.
Two problems have to be addressed before we’ll know whether humans can live anywhere but Earth: 1) Can we find economical space resources, such as water, to provide fuel and other materials needed to support ever-expanding human activities? Finding and exploiting extraterrestrial resources is vital. Otherwise we will forever be limited by the large expense of transporting everything from Earth’s surface. 2) Can humans, plants and animals survive for lifetimes in low-gravity environments? If not, then visions of colonizing the Moon and Mars will have to be abandoned.
“These are exciting questions,” Sykes said.
Answering the first will require targeted science and robotic missions. If we can identify and obtain water cost-effectively from the Moon, asteroids and dead comets near Earth, we’ll have a critical resource we need to take life into space, Sykes explained. But locating and developing potential off-planet resources will not happen by accident. “There must be a carefully planned, systematic effort.”
Scientific experiments aboard the space station can help answer the second question, Sykes observed.
The space station also is the best place to develop resource-extraction processes that will be needed on Near Earth Objects, which have almost no gravity. “We will need a space station for as long as we pursue the possibility and reality of a permanent population beyond Earth,” he added.
The United States is uniquely positioned to take up this challenge that was fixed in the public mind decades ago, Sykes said. “We have a broad and deep scientific bench and the necessary technical capabilities. The work that needs to be done is known and would represent a small fraction of the annual human space-flight budget.”
“If we learn that there are no economically recoverable resources or that our biology does not support living beyond the Earth, we can design a focused, cost-effective human space flight program to meet our strategic needs within those constraints,” Sykes explained.
Unfortunately, this is not a part of any scenario under consideration by the presidential panel, led by Norman Augustine, former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, Sykes noted. The panel has been tasked to consider options for the future of human space flight. “At a fundamental level, it is business as usual,” Sykes said. “We need a new focus that finally takes on a decades-old dream — a dream that resonates with an American history built on facing the unknown and opening up new frontiers for future expansion.”