In the eyes of many the new NASA exploration plan announced in the FY2011 budget proposal is a massive change, one that abandons the previous goal in the Vision for Space Exploration of returning humans to the Moon by 2020 and, some fear, human space exploration altogether. However, one NASA official said yesterday that the new plan doesn’t change the underlying goal for human space exploration.
The new plan represents “a change in approach and philosophy, but not a change in goal,” said Laurie Leshin, NASA deputy administrator for exploration, in a speech yesterday at a Marshall Institute event on space exploration policy in Washington. “The goal remains the same: to see human explorers out in the solar system.” The new focus on “sustainable and affordable” human space exploration isn’t that new, she said, noting that it was emphasized back in 2004 by the Aldridge Commission that evaluated the Vision for Space Exploration (a committee she served on when she was a professor at Arizona State University.) “We’ve come back to needing to have new and enabling approaches in order to make this a sustainable program for the future.”
To emphasize the need for technology development—one of the cornerstones of the new plan—to enable sustainable human space exploration, she put up a chart showing the mass needed to carry out the latest version of NASA’s Design Reference Mission for human Mars exploration. “If today, with today’s technology, decided we wanted to go to Mars, our mission would have a mass about 12 times of the space station,” she said. “It’s just impossible.” Various technologies, from reducing cryogenic boiloff to in situ resource utilization, can get it down to a more manageable level, she said. “It’s not that these technologies are nice to have, they’re absolutely required if we’re going to have a sustainable path out into the solar system.”
“This is obviously a very different approach to enabling future human spaceflight than we’ve been on,” she said, but added that so far NASA hasn’t been doing as good a job as it should in communicating the benefits of this approach. “I think the challenge before us now is to paint the picture better, frankly, than we have on how these actually feed into future human flights. And I will tell you, that this is the thing that we are working on today.” She said that “very shortly” NASA will be providing some opportunities for the space community to interact with the agency, in the form of requests for information and industry days. “It’s been a little bit frustrating so far, to me and I’m sure to you all as well, that we’ve had to be sort of hunkered down, and we’re coming out of our shell in the next couple of months.”