NASA's New Space Race Needs Life Support

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The Ares V. NASA/AP i

The Ares V is being designed as a heavy-launch vehicle capable of sending large-scale hardware and materials to the moon and supplying needed staples to sustain a human presence beyond Earth orbit. NASA/AP hide caption

itoggle caption NASA/AP
The Ares V. NASA/AP

The Ares V is being designed as a heavy-launch vehicle capable of sending large-scale hardware and materials to the moon and supplying needed staples to sustain a human presence beyond Earth orbit.

NASA/AP

Houston, we have a problem: According to a blue-ribbon panel, the U.S. space program is on an unsustainable trajectory.

This past week, the Human Spaceflight Plans Committee released a report saying that unless NASA receives more money fast, the space agency will have to scale back its near-term ambitions.

Former President George W. Bush had laid out a vision to send a manned spacecraft back to the moon, and then eventually to Mars. So NASA developed a plan to make it happen.

The idea might have been great, but the execution — well, that's another matter.

It turns out, if NASA continues on its current path, the agency will end up building rockets to nowhere — because it'll run out of cash.

So the panel, led by Norman Augustine, presented the White House with a few alternative options.

One would be to go for it — to accelerate work on NASA's most powerful rocket — called the Ares V — and start thinking about getting back to the moon fast.

Another option is to focus more on trying to land manned spacecraft on things like asteroids, as well as sending manned flights beyond the low-Earth orbit into deep space.

But both of those proposals would require more money — to the tune of at least $3 billion a year. Is it worth it?

Astronaut Leroy Chiao. Bill Ingalls/NASA/AP i

Astronaut Leroy Chiao gives a thumbs-up in 2004 before lifting off for the International Space Station. Bill Ingalls/NASA/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Ingalls/NASA/AP
Astronaut Leroy Chiao. Bill Ingalls/NASA/AP

Astronaut Leroy Chiao gives a thumbs-up in 2004 before lifting off for the International Space Station.

Bill Ingalls/NASA/AP

Why Send Humans Instead Of Robots?

Former astronaut Leroy Chiao, a member of the Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, tells NPR's Guy Raz that it's important to keep manned missions in the program.

"Just as a species, we're explorers," he says. "It's exciting for us to see humans exploring, because we can identify with those people."

While Chiao acknowledges that robots are capable of plenty of the exploration part, he echoes the report's call for balance between manned and unmanned missions. Practically speaking, he says, you need humans in space because they're far more adaptable than robots.

"The human is much more adaptable and can assess the situation on the spot and take action," he says. "Missions have been saved because of human intervention.

"There's no question it's more expensive to send human beings, but at the same time, it offers operation flexibility that you can't get otherwise."

What Makes It So Expensive?

Part of what makes sending a manned mission to Mars so expensive is the stops along the way. We'd have to start with sending humans back to the moon. Chiao says that's because we need to relearn how to land and operate on other planets.

"The last Apollo mission was 37 years ago, so all the people who executed that program are long since retired from the industry or moved on," he points out. We'd more or less be starting all over again.

Then, we'd need to know how to operate in a deep space habitat for extended periods.

"One-hundred-eighty or more days — that's something we've never done," Chiao says. "So those two things we need to build up in order to be able to go and send a human mission to Mars."

To build that knowledge, Chiao says, an asteroid flyby might be interesting.

"We would learn a lot about the engineering that went into a departure stage, and the operations, the navigation," he says. "All that gets us to the nearest object."

"Landing, of course, would have its own set of challenges," Chiao says, "but no question — we would be learning and building infrastructure to go explore farther on to Mars."

He's realistic about the possibility of a manned mission to Mars, though. Chiao says he was 8 years old when Apollo 11 landed, and as a young adult, he expected humans to make it to the Red Planet much sooner. "But I am optimistic," he says, "that we will go to Mars in my lifetime."

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