For NASA no easy answer for next space destination

February 23, 2010 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
In this Feb. 18, 2010 photo, Ad Astra Rocket Company scientists Chris Olsen, foreground, and Ben Longmier test the company's VASIMR rocket engine inside a vacuum chamber in Webster, Texas. There are only a few places in space where humans can go in the next couple of decades. In the next few years, new technology should be developed enough to know exactly where. President Barack Obama plans to divert billions of dollars from the Bush moon plan toward better rocketry. (AP Photo/Michael Stravato)

(AP) -- Where to next? It's a simple question that NASA can't answer so easily anymore. The veteran space shuttle fleet is months from being mothballed and the White House has nixed a previous plan to fly to the moon.

For the first time in decades, NASA has no specific destination for its next stop, although it has lots of places it wants to go. Future space flight, NASA officials say, now depends on new rocket science and where it can take us.

That uncertainty may not sit well with Congress, which will be grilling NASA chief Charles Bolden on Wednesday and Thursday in the first hearings since the George W. Bush was shelved.

There are only a few places in space where humans can go in the next couple of decades. NASA wants to go to all of them, with the ultimate destination, as always, being Mars.

"The suite of destinations has not changed over time," NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said in an interview. "The moon, asteroids, Mars - if you're going to go anywhere - is where we are going."

But with any itinerary there is a first stop. So what is that?

Check back in a couple of years. That's when new technology should be developed enough to answer that question, Garver said. President Barack Obama plans to divert billions of dollars from the Bush moon plan toward developing better rocketry.

"The best way to get anywhere... is really invest in technologies that will reduce the cost, reduce the time, reduce the risk and so forth," Garver said.

Some of those technologies seem like science fiction. The possibilities noted by experts inside and outside of NASA include the equivalent of an in-orbit gas station, electric-hybrid rockets, nuclear thermal rockets, inflatable parts for spaceships, and methods of beaming power between Earth and space.

Former astronaut Franklin Chang-Diaz, who has developed a new type of electric propulsion engine called VASIMR that the NASA leadership mentions specifically, said this new emphasis is especially welcome because six years ago NASA killed its advanced technology program.

"We clearly need the technology leap if we really want to go to Mars," Chang-Diaz said. "We are not going to Mars on chemical rockets."

Chemical rockets are what has always been used to get into space and they require carrying lots of expensive fuel. would get better mileage, but versions so far don't have nearly enough thrust to get off Earth.

To some critics, however, technology isn't as important as a destination. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who will be chairing Wednesday's Senate subcommittee hearing, plans to push for some kind of commitment and specific plan of action.

"The president is the only one that can lead the space program, and he ought to set a goal," Nelson said in an e-mail. "He needs to say where we're going and let NASA design the architecture to do it."

Former NASA associate administrator Alan Stern said he's waiting to hear what NASA officials outline in the Capitol Hill hearings, but he too has concerns about not having a precise destination.

"We need a destination and a timetable and that's really lacking," Stern said. He said that relying on technology to dictate a location "sounds like a program to nowhere."

Because human spaceflight is about inspiration, science and international cooperation, Stern said, "you need a specific destination, a proper noun, something that's capitalized."

The outline for much of NASA's future was sketched out by an independent spaceflight panel the White House appointed last year. Led by retired Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine, the panel laid out options, including canceling an immediate return to the moon and instead proposing a "flexible path."

Panel member Chris Chyba, a professor of astrophysics and public affairs at Princeton University, said just because the flexible path doesn't point to a specific starting point doesn't mean it's without a goal.

"You begin by saying what your goal is, not what your destination is," Chyba said. "And the goal is the human expansion into the solar system."

The spaceflight panel charted a possible roadmap, based on the easiest trips first, such as a flight to the moon but no landing. Next might be any of a handful of points in space where the gravitational pull between the Earth and the moon, or the Earth and the sun are equal. Such locations are places of engineering importance because future space telescopes and other science satellites are slated to go there and this would allow astronauts to repair them. But they risk ridicule as flights to nowhere, Chyba said.

Then the panel suggested landing on a near-Earth asteroid, followed by flights to and around Mars and landing on a Martian moon. The panel also noted that landing on Earth's moon is "an obvious alternative" to Mars, maybe after an asteroid mission and serving as a possible training stop for other flights. The space agency also might still opt to go to the moon before anywhere else, NASA's Garver said.

Several experts believe the most sensible place for astronauts to go first is an asteroid.

"If the goal is ultimately the human exploration of Mars," landing on an object near Earth is a logical first step because it's easier, says Donald Yeomans, chief of NASA's near Earth object program.

What asteroids offer is a lack of gravity, making it easy to leave. Landing on larger objects, such as the moon and Mars, would require the extra but expensive thrust that chemical rockets provide, demonstrating the need for a hybrid vehicle.

Visiting an asteroid would have the appeal of some place new, would provide legitimate scientific study and could even help scientists figure out how to save Earth from some future killer asteroid, Stern said.

Another of the key points in future spaceflight will be the ability to stop in space to refuel or even switch vehicles, said NASA's new chief technologist Bobby Braun.

The future for is not about future space destinations, contends MIT astronautics professor Ed Crawley, a member of the White House-appointed panel.

"It's about the journey," he said. "It's a journey of technology. It's a journey of discovery. It's a journey of capability. It's a journey away from the cradle. At some point we have to learn how to leave the planet."

Explore further: Panel says NASA should skip moon, fly elsewhere (Update)

More information:
-- NASA,
-- Outside human spaceflight panel report,
-- Vasimr rocket,


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4.3 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2010
I believe the nation with the most robust and vital manned space program will lead the world in technological development. The specific areas that such nation will dominate will be materials manufacture, electronics, communications, energy systems, and of course, aerospace transportation. Not to mention advanced defense systems. With a leadership position in these areas, they will be able to build an economic/industrial/intellectual engine that will be unstoppable. It would be a disaster beyond imagining for the United States to step away from this challenge.

My choice would be to make Mars the immediate goal. Then use multiple bases there as stepping stones to loftier goals beyond -- the asteroids and the gas giants' moons.

And I would hope that someone sees the wisdom of beginning immediately.

If the U.S. falters in this, we may never be able to recover the technical/intellectual critical mass to begin again. And this one thing is certain: to the victor will go the spoils.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2010
I think we need to go on a crash program of nanotechnological, bio-molecular, biomedical and neuroscience R&D that will allow us to adapt ourselves to space. Our machines will probably catch up to and even surpass us in ability long before we actually get around to "colonizing" the solar system. When that happens, the exploration of space by unmodified, "natural" humans will be even more pointless than it is now. But modifying ourselves would not just revolutionize space exploration. It would break the bonds of our biological origins and make us into truly space-adapted, spacefaring entities truly at home in that environment, not just feeble fleshy beings that surround themselves with mere exoskeletons in order to "endure" it.
Space colonization isn't like Europeans sailing to the new world; it's like our ancient primate ancestors leaving the forest to take up life on the African veldt.
BTW: I think Artificial General Intelligence will be real before we ever get past mars.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2010
Read any one of the old sceince fiction stories. Larry Niven is a good start. Ridiculously antiquated technology plods on to another solar system only to find that advanced human technology has arrived years or generations earlier. Apply the same energy to new(or secret) space propulsion as was applied to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo and American Astronauts will be zipping past older tech. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", AC Clarke
5 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2010
Rather than "where to next?" this would be a good time to ask "how to get there fast but cheap" so throw that money at vasimirs / tethers / solarsails / nuclear powered ion engines etc... Now would be a could time to stop using 60 year old inefficient multistage solid rocket booster tech.

The other destination could be to have the universe travel to us instead, throw money at even bigger / better telescopes and observe the universe in its very infant stages and exoplanets in such detail that one could see individual continents, atmospheric spectra and perhaps life. Space telecopes of the last 20 years have given so much incredible scientific return on there
investment that it seems worth to go full steam ahead with these.
not rated yet Feb 24, 2010
I think there is a need of an energy source to power plasma rockets such as MPD Thruster and VASIMR, thus I believe the aneutronic reactor, fueled with He3-He3 or p-B11, could be the most suitable option to power these electric thrusters, because it can produce electricity directly exceeding 90% of efficiency, without neutron injury to the crew members.
Feb 24, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
3 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2010
The obstacles lie not with technology development, but the absence of a clear mission outline. Ad Astra needs to present a proposal to the White House to engage in a collaboration with NASA to send a probe to Mars using their 200 MegaWatt VASIMR design so that a committee can be formed to execute the plan. This would provide the proof-of-concept that Ad Astra needs to secure funding and that will lead gradually to shifting the space exploration effort into the private sector.
not rated yet Feb 24, 2010
Frankly, I couldn't care less that NASA can't figure out what to do. Obama is pushing this country in a very intelligent direction: For 40 years, Presidents have proclaimed lofty goals in space, and congress repeatedly failed to fund them adequately. In a stunning bit of reverse psychology, Obama has turned the tables and the result is a national discussion of what comes next. If you want a space program, FUND IT! Also, why do the conservative representatives cry now for a STATE-run program, except for the fact that they are getting lion's share of the federal $$ (e.g. Houston, Alabama, Florida). I thought they believed in free-enterprise. So, how about letting free-enterprise decide where to go? I thiink the answer will be: EVERYWHERE! If a company decides to go to the nearby asteroids, and refine the resources there, don't you think there will be an enormous profit? Ditto for everywhere else.

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