It is reasonable to devote some of NASA’s efforts to exploration for the sake of exploration and development, rather than for solving immediate problems. Much of this already happens in the NASA Space Science program that this paper does not seek to change. In the less dramatic Constellation cutback scenario proposed here, the remaining Constellation budget would also be devoted to exploration once the ISS transportation mission has been achieved. Some of the application missions already described here have an exploration aspect, such as health, agriculture, environment, and energy experiments and demonstrations on the Moon or other planets. Many of these missions would have to be robotic at first (there being no means of transportation to the Moon or planets at first in this plan), but they would be done in many cases with the long-term goal of human missions in mind.
Nevertheless, a focused application area for exploration remains in this proposal. At $500M to $900M per year, it is much scaled back from the Constellation effort in funding. There is a strong prospect that it would result in a delay in human missions to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars compared to the Constellation plan, if that plan succeeds. However, the emphasis here on supporting commercial space, Cheap Access to Space, space infrastructure, and path-finding robotic demonstrations may result in a human program that is more cost-effective, more sustainable, and in the long run more productive than the transportation-only, single-effort, all-or-nothing, government built and run Constellation program.
1. Human Space Exploration - The general plan of the human missions here follows an incremental series of steps from replacing the Shuttle with private cargo and crew ISS and general LEO access (complemented by similar Ares/Orion capabilities in one scenario), followed by human satellite servicing, then human GEO access, and then a choice of human lunar orbit or human Lagrange point access. These would in turn be followed by human lunar or Near Earth asteroid access, respectively. Human missions to Mars could be a long-term goal. However, full attention would be paid mainly to the next 2 or 3 steps, and far-off steps would be left for later planning as infrastructure and capabilities increase. It should be kept in mind that this effort, although on a smaller scale than the current Constellation effort, is much greater than the almost non-existent effort to send humans beyond LEO and to explore the Moon with people and robots before the VSE. In early years the funding in this application area could supplement the COTS cargo and crew space access area of the Transportation application area if needed. It could also supplement the space medicine, hazards, and similar efforts of the Health, Medicine, and Biology application area, closed life support systems work in the Energy application area, or lunar or planetary demos in the Environment application area. It could also develop its own demonstrations and capabilities needed for exploration, such as space suits, lunar habitats and vehicles, more capable lunar robots based perhaps on private Google Lunar X PRIZE efforts, or infrastructure that enables greater access to space, such as in-space refueling. In the early years, the second priority of this application area (next to helping the Transportation application area with COTS, if needed) would be developing satellite servicing capabilities, likely based on Ares/Orion (if built) and COTS winners as part of the system architecture. These capabilities would include monitoring, refueling, tug operations, and swapping components like batteries and instruments in the style of Hubble servicing missions. Some of the satellite servicing capabilities could also be applied to solar system probes in an LEO check-out, fueling, or augmentation phase. Obviously satellite servicing is not exploration in itself, especially since it would begin in LEO. However, satellite servicing is a key step in building up exploration capabilities. Once satellite servicing capabilities are demonstrated adequately, they would be fully commercialized and NASA’s exploration efforts would be able to move out of LEO with systems based on earlier LEO cargo and crew space access vehicles and improvements that enable satellite servicing, which is a step in capability above simple LEO access that should make the next step, to GEO satellite servicing, easier. Eventually, LEO space access, LEO satellite servicing, and GEO satellite servicing would all be done by commercial space, and NASA would be able to move beyond GEO. Because the human exploration effort has funding levels that are restricted to part of the Exploration application area and whatever miscellaneous efforts of other application areas may contribute to exploration, these efforts will be forced to rely heavily on commercial space capabilities. If they are to proceed at a quicker pace, they will also need to rely heavily on international cooperation. The Constellation effort does not include commercial or international components in the space transportation system. However, it is conceivable that a smaller Exploration application area would collaborate more heavily with other space agencies to the extent that other agencies contribute major components to a human space exploration transportation system, enabling human exploration of, for example, the Moon to proceed earlier than is envisioned here.
2. Ocean Exploration – While NASA would be unable for an extended amount of time to reach the Lunar surface or asteroids with this plan, it would be able to start a new, real exploration program that would quickly be productive in an application sense, and would also strengthen NASA’s exploration capabilities. The way to do that is with an Earth ocean exploration program. NASA already explores the oceans through its remote sensing satellites. It already studies deep ocean hydrothermal vents and lakes buried under miles of Antarctic ice when it studies life in extreme environments. It already investigates the possibility of liquid oceans under the surface of gas giant moons, and even considers long-term missions to send subs to those moons. A vigorous program to explore and map the deep oceans of the Earth would be a useful complement to NASA’s space mission. The scientific benefits of such work would complement NASA’s planetary science work. The operational and engineering aspects of really running challenging exploration missions under the sea would complement NASA’s space operations and engineering efforts. It’s important to note that this effort could include efforts related to ocean settlement and resources.