The ever-changing frontier for space exploration

Fifty years on, what’s the result since man set foot on the moon... who has been setting the agenda and where are we going? For a while, the whole idea was to take the technology of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and make access to space easier, take bigger things into orbit, and then build a space station. Why? Experiments, new micro-gravity discoveries (already found in many industries) and, never least, learn how to live in space in preparation for long distance and long duration space exploration — these were the goals of the men and women devoting their lifetimes and intellect.

And then it all slowed down. Why? Without the public’s visible fascination of a human standing on a planetary body, it was easy for politicians to reallocate funds to their own (short-sighted and short-term) projects. Desperate to re-kindle the innovative advance experimentation of the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era that was single-handedly responsible for American technological superiority (and therefore commercial superiority), some smart politicians, thinking long term, wanted to get going despite the Challenger tragedy in 1986.

President George H. W. Bush started the Space Exploration Initiative in 1989 that had, as its central core, a permanent base on the moon and a first trip to Mars. Along came Clinton who cancelled it. Al Gore, as head of NASA, was the reason. Already sure we were superior enough, Al decided that the “tubes” of the internet would keep America on top. NASA languished technologically under Clinton. In 2003 we lost the Columbia Shuttle and yet President George W. Bush saw the advantages to America to forge ahead, so in 2004 he started the Vision for Space Exploration Constellation. A major part of that program was to step backward a bit and build a new space capsule to sit atop a big rocket as we did with Apollo’s Saturn 5 rocket. The Crew Exploration Vehicle (later renamed Orion) will fly this year and the rocket to power it, called Ares, is set to fly in one form or another.

The problem in 2010 happened when Congress, desperate to thwart Obama at any cost, cancelled most of the advanced research for NASA that Joe Biden (head of NASA as VP) asked for. With no lunar lander, no Orion ready, no Ares ready to go, Obama announced the Asteroid Redirect Mission/Asteroid Redirect Crew Mission program by executive order. To get the funding, Obama was forced to cancel Bush’s Constellation program, though he somehow kept Orion going. Because the asteroid initiative would be commercially profitable, Congress gave enough money to the asteroid program to start a heavy-lift rocket program called Space Launch System (built on Ares). Instead of sending a human to an asteroid, the revised plan was, and still is, to capture an asteroid (redirecting its orbit) to land near Earth’s orbit where humans can go and explore and mine. Value? Technology advances may be minimal compared to real space exploration but the right asteroid could have more rare metal elements than are mined on Earth in a decade. Shorter term big financial reward equaled congressional approval even for Obama.

In 2017 everything changed again. “A big dumb rock” no longer seemed interesting to the Trump administration and, as Mike Pence said, that was Obama’s dream, not theirs. So NASA quietly set about planning for a Lunar Orbiting Platform called Gateway. Without having to land on the moon, NASA is proposing to send a modified Space Station to orbit the moon. Of course, NASA is touting the idea of returning “Americans to the soil of the Moon” in the near future, preferably ahead of the Chinese, Indians and whoever else is trying. Of course, if NASA has an outpost around the moon, the expectation is that the asteroid concept may be revived, as may the Mars mission. Currently, press releases affirm that NASA should be “back to the moon by 2024.”

Perhaps. On the other hand, until the nation rekindles our interest, until schools and the media accurately cover the benefits of NASA exploration over the past 60 years to every single aspect of human life — medical, educational, leisure, business, research — it is doubtful any member of Congress will care, much less seek, to bring these benefits to future generations.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, N.Y., now lives in New Mexico.