My Goal is to Restore Our Space Program
By Steve Stockman
I represent the 36th district of Texas, which includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and I serve on the Science, Space and Technology Committee; the Space Subcommittee; and am the Vice Chairman of the Research Subcommittee.
I was an enthusiastic supporter of the space program from my youth. I grew up watching Gemini and Apollo missions; and like millions of kids my age watched in thrilled suspense as Neil Armstrong took that historic step and announced, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
My goal in Congress is not to watch our space program slowly fade away, but to work to restore our space program and launch us once more to an exciting future of space exploration and technological leadership; through a partnership of NASA and commercial ventures.
When President Obama cancelled America’s plans to return to the moon and go to Mars, the result was chaos. In an instant, all the planning for manned space exploration beyond low Earth orbit became history. In its place were just vague statements of one day in the distant future going to unspecified asteroids or maybe flying around Mars--not a JFK "in this decade" moment in our history. NASA employees became demoralized and employee retention became a serious problem.
Ever since, the President and his leadership at NASA have been unable to answer the most basic questions; where are we going, and when?
Only because the House and Senate--both Republicans and Democrats--united in refusing to abandon the goal of manned space exploration and forced NASA to build our moon-Mars rocket and capsule, SLS and Orion; will future administrations will have the ability to actually launch America to new worlds. Had these indeed been cancelled, it would have taken yet another decade and billions more for the next administration to start from scratch to build a moon-Mars system. By that time, other nations might have beaten us to the punch. That is the unpleasant truth.
So let’s create a bold manned and unmanned space program, which includes a specific roadmap to return to the moon where we will learn how to live on other worlds, and then land on Mars.
We must establish a true space strategy, encompassing both manned and robotic exploration. Without defining a roadmap, we are burdening NASA and the private sector with the prospect of fruitless development, cancelled programs and contracts, and a disillusioned public which ceases to dream of a bright future in space.
Of special interest to me is Dennis Tito’s Mars Inspiration mission for two astronauts to fly by Mars in 2018. This indeed will inspire Americans to look to the heavens again with the same enthusiasm that we did in the 1960’s! Mars Inspiration may help re-energize NASA to take us to the next step—the moment when an American takes that breathtaking step onto the rusty-red soil of Mars.
Here are many of my priorities to restore America’s space program:
Commercial Space: This is America’s new frontier. Space X and soon Orbital are our delivery trucks to ISS for cargo; and Space X, Boeing and Sierra Nevada are preparing to end the dangerous gap in American crew launch capability. In addition, commercial ventures are proposing and building many exciting projects. Mining asteroids, Bigelow’s inflatable habitats and space stations, Mars Inspiration’s bold Mars fly-by—these are the advance guard for a new era in commercial industries in space.
Commercial space and NASA work hand-in-hand. There is little commercial purpose or return on investment in basic research or in braving the uncharted waters of pioneering missions to deep space. Yet, as Columbus opened up the New World, so too did NASA pave the way and help fund and develop the technology for today’s commercial launch companies; and in years to come, so will NASA help pave the way for commercial mining and other ventures to the moon, asteroids and Mars.
A National Space Strategy: Without a roadmap, we will only spend money without real result, and end up only looking back at our past glories. Let’s celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 on the moon or from the orbit of Mars!
It is essential that NASA develop a true national space strategy for short-term and long-range manned and robotic goals. If the White House continues to block this, then Congress should assume the leadership role that NASA appears to be prohibited by the White House from doing, and develop with the assistance of our best scientists a practical and affordable roadmap for a bold and exciting space program worthy of America.
In short, Mars must be formally established to be the manned space exploration goal. As with President Kennedy’s goal to go to the moon “in this decade,” once we establish a target of landing Americans on Mars in the 2020s, we can count on the incredible scientists, engineers and support staff at NASA and commercial ventures to make it happen—and it can happen far sooner than many would have us believe possible. To succeed in living on Mars, we need some stepping stones. The most important is to build a research base on the moon. The moon is just three days to home in the event of an emergency, and is the ideal test bed to learn how to live on other worlds.
Prioritize Budget Cuts: My ‘Smartquester” plan would cut more spending than President Obama’s sequester, yet would spare NASA, defense, the sciences and other programs essential to our nation. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater is never wise!
One Percent for Space: Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has popularized the idea of more-than doubling the NASA budget; to increase the budget to 1% of the Federal budget. I support slashing a great many programs in the Federal budget, but cutting the space program and R&D is a tragic mistake. These are among the few government programs which pay off far in excess of their costs, and which contribute directly to our global competitiveness.
Here’s the deal: given current budget plans and now the sequester cuts, we may watch more and more critical elements of our space program get cut or delayed; and one day wake up and see that other nations have seized the high frontier and the lead in high technology.
Our nation cannot remain prosperous as second-rate in space and high technology. Further, if non-free nations are allowed by our abandonment to rule space, commercial space ventures might be outlawed or be forced to pay the UN and other nations extravagant royalties. Let’s prioritize spending for the few things which will make a real difference to our nation’s prosperity and world leadership.
Retaining Critical Facilities at NASA: NASA closed the arc-jet facility at the Johnson Space Center, which cripples NASA’s ability to test and certify thermal protection systems for spacecraft. This was done in defiance of advice supporting its continued use at JSC. I am working with other key members of Congress to bring the arc-jet equipment back to JSC, and to put it in operation before it causes delays in our new generation of spacecraft or forces users to send their test articles abroad to a competing facility in possible violation of ITAR. There may be NASA facilities which could be cut, this is not one of them.
Best Utilization of ISS: The International Space Station is our amazing laboratory in orbit. I’ve heard many people say we ended the space program with the premature retirement of the space shuttles, yet we have this incredible lab orbiting above our heads every day. Check NASA’s website for when you can see it pass overhead!
Our space station can and should be used to develop and test advanced technologies for deep space missions; in fact, this is the highest and best use for ISS. These include developing and testing life support systems capable of a Mars journey, new radiation shielding designs, advanced propulsion systems and more.
ISS should be extended to be operational to at least 2028. We must not scrap our $100 billion investment but retain it as our research lab to support future exploration missions.
Of key importance is the planned one-year expedition in 2015. This will provide essential knowledge for successful lunar and Martian expeditions.
Detection and Mitigation of Threats from Asteroids. The recent meteorite in Russia, coupled with close passages of small asteroids, are a wakeup call that we must catalog all potentially dangerous objects which could hit the Earth, and develop methods to alter the course of those which could cause catastrophic damage on Earth. Planetary defense from asteroids is vital, and must be adequately funded separatly from NASA's current budget, rather than further cutting other programs which would leave NASA unable to accomplish its core missions.
Planetary Missions: In addition to exploring Mars, we must work in Congress to support and fund the next generation of planetary probes. Europa and Titan, for example, beg for surface exploration. We must make the case to increase NASA’s budget; to ‘expand the pie’ so we do not have to abandon our exploration of the solar system.
Advanced Propulsion Technologies: NASA should offer greater support to ion and other advanced propulsion technologies which will allow journeys to Mars in weeks instead of months; and make possible manned voyages to the outer planets. Such propulsion systems will also lower the costs and increase the effectiveness of robotic missions.
X-Prizes: I am a big fan of rewarding innovation, and NASA should offer many X-Prizes for the development of technologies important to our space strategy.
STEM Education: for decades, experts and professors have tried to interest students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Yet this was not a problem in the glory days of our space program. Why? Because students were inspired by the prospect of helping build our space program. Persuasion may be needed today to help our nation remain competitive, but inspiration works far better! Let’s set a star-high goal—really set the goal of Americans on Mars before 2030, and universities will have to scramble to serve the flood of aspiring STEM students!
Closed-loop Life Support: Deep space missions and research outposts on the moon and Mars will require advances in life support to allow long-term habitation far distant from Earth or supply ships. Such technologies will have spin-off benefits for a cleaner environment here on Earth.
Radiation Protection: Research and development of advanced radiation shielding is another key element for manned deep space missions.
Practical Space Debris Removal: Space debris is a rapidly-growing danger to the ability to use orbital space, and developing methods for its removal is an urgent priority.
Restart Production of Plutonium-238: This is the fuel for power generation in Curiosity, Voyager and other probes, yet the US is running out of it. It is essential if we are to again launch outer-planet probes where solar panels cannot generate sufficient power, and for long-lived Mars rovers and bases. While production of plutonium-238 is planned to be restarted, this is a long-term process, and I will work to make sure it is not halted before a sufficient stockpile has been made.
Planetary Mining Technologies: NASA should develop mining technologies for creating rocket fuel, extracting water and essential minerals and metals to support bases on the moon and Mars. This will serve the needs for space exploration over the next few decades, and spinoffs will help create a future commercial space mining industry.
Mars Sample Return: This is the single most important robotic mission as identified in the planetary Decadal Survey. Yet NASA cancelled the 2018 Max-C rover which would collect such samples, and decided to spend the money instead on a non-caching rover in 2020. Simply, humans cannot safely land on Mars or return to Earth until we can analyze on Earth samples of Martian soil and water to help rule-in or out the question of life on Mars. Therefore, the top priority for the planned 2020 “Curiosity-2” mission should be collecting and caching samples for later return. I will work to restore collection and caching to be the primary purpose of the 2020 rover. Let's also put the Mars Microphone on this or another Mars rover--the sounds you'll hear will be out of this world!
These are many of my priorities and concerns as we seek to rebuild a space program worthy of our great nation; one which will help launch our economy back to prosperity and inspire new generations to reach for the heavens. I invite your comments and ideas.