"Where are they going without ever knowing the way?" Asked the band Fastball in their hit "The Way." The same question could have been asked of the U.S. manned space program for the last several decades. Where it manifestly was not headed was to the stars -- or anywhere out of low earth orbit for that matter.
As President Bush pointed out in his January speech at NASA Headquarters, "In the past 30 years, no human being has... ventured farther upward into space than 386 miles." In that speech, he laid out a stunning new vision for space exploration, which has since been badly misunderestimated.
Maybe many pressmen were muddled by the model -- or the chemicals -- of the Apollo era, but even space enthusiasts (author included) missed the main point, focusing only on the president's plan to return to the moon and travel to Mars. Those programs are there, and they're important components. But as a roundtable with John Marburger, the President's science advisor and retired Rear Adm Craig Steidle, NASA's Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems made clear, the president's vision thing is a great deal grander than most have grasped.
"The objective is everything," said Mr. Marburger said with delighted emphasis -- the moon, Mars and all the rest of the things under -- or at least in the gravitational sway of -- the sun. According to his science advisor, the president has accepted the notion that eventually, humans will incorporate accessible space into their economic zone.
To go where no man has gone before (it had to come somewhere), the president envisions a sustained, multi-generational drive upwards and outwards, with ultimate destination unknown. Mr. Bush has repeatedly used the terms "sustained" and "step by step" in speeches and policy statements. In his January space speech, Mr. Bush announced his "new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across the solar system." A few breaths later he said, "We'll make steady progress -- one mission, one voyage, one landing at a time." The president's policy paper, "A Renewed Spirit of Discovery," declares that two of the primary objectives are, to "Extend human presence across the solar system," and "Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond."
Fiscal sustainability is also a critical component. The president's people piqued pundits and policymakers a by pronouncing that they weren't sure what the final cost of the program would be, but they appear to have been being honest -- there's no way to know in 20 or 200 years. Still, costs will have to be controlled, since Cold-War competition can no longer serve as a catalyst for exploration. Instead of asking for a NASA budget spike (which Congress would spike), the administration is shooting for small, sustainable funding increases, with no slips and no skyrockets.
Robots are expected to play major roles, both as low-maintenance laborers and as surrogate surveyors. Mr. Steidle said he is also counting on the private sector for innovation. In April, he put out a formal request for information, asking companies for ideas about overcoming the first challenges ahead. About 15 trade studies are already underway, and many more will follow. To drive additional competition and innovation, NASA has set up a program of contests -- "Centennial Challenges" -- which will award cash prizes to those who overcome them.
In a sense, the president's vision marks the continuation of the Apollo missions, but there will be no more one- (or multiple Moon) shot wonders, no more marking time in low earth orbit. Instead, there will be a step-by-step move outwards. When humans reach the moon, they won't just grab a bite of green cheese and go. Instead, they'll survey, explore and begin building the infrastructure -- shelters, machinery, fuel and water depots -- for the next step outwards. They'll do the same when they reach Mars, the asteroid belt, the icy moons of Jupiter, and beyond.
On Wednesday, the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond, led by former U.S. Air Force Secretary Edward (Pete) Aldridge, will release its recommendations on how to implement that vision. It is expected to describe the major challenges NASA faces but not prescribe detailed solutions.
Will the spending to fulfill the vision be worth it? After all, many think that the billions literally burned as rocket fuel could serve some more significant social purpose. Against that, Mr. Marburger opined, "If we don't make some investment to see if [space exploration] works, 200 years from now we will still be wondering if it is feasible. We think it is a pretty good bet."
It is, for reasons both pragmatic and poetic. NASA is at a crossroads. At the end of the decade, the space shuttles will have to either be re-certified or retired. Going into the solar system will bring great wealth and human enrichment. The earth will eventually run out of resources; it will eventually be hit by a civilization-destroying asteroid; it will eventually be burned to a cinder by the sun. But space exploration is more than an escape strategy, more than an opportunity for economic gain. Space travel is also about the soul, about the aspiration of the human sprit. President Bush said, "We have undertaken space travel because the desire to explore and understand is a part of our character." He might have added, as Fastball did, "You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere/They won't make it home but they really don't care/They wanted the highway/They're happier there, today."
Charles Rousseaux is an editorial writer for The Washington Times and a frequent TCS contributor. He recently wrote for TCS about the builders of Iraq.