One of the more compelling speeches at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Huntsville, Alabama, earlier this month was by Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace and a member of 2009’s Augustine Committee that reviewed NASA’s human spaceflight plans. Greason’s speech, the video of which is now available online, focused on the need for a strategy for expanding human presence beyond Earth.
Greason explained that the organization of any major effort, from wars to space exploration, has a particular hierarchy, starting with an overall goal. Below that is the strategy that offers the “big picture approach” for achieving that goal. Below that are objectives by which one measures progress on that particular strategy towards the goal, and below that are tactics needed to achieve those objectives.
“Strategy is the void that we have right now,” Greason said. At one end there is a lot of discussion about tactics, such as the the choice of launch vehicles that often dominates debates on space policy, he noted. There’s also, he said, a growing realization of what the goal of the national space program is, although it’s mentioned only obliquely in various policy documents over the years. “It is actually the national policy of the United States that we should settle space.”
What’s missing, though, he said, is a coherent strategy for implementing that national goal, which in turn would inform the tactics being debated. “We don’t even have the beginnings of a national agreement of what our strategy ought to be,” he said. “And until we have one, we’re going to continue to flail.”
What is Greason’s idea for a strategy? In the speech, he proposed a “planet hopping” approach analogous to the “island hopping” strategy the US used against Japan in World War Two. “What we have to do is take the planetary destinations in sequence,” he said, referring to the Moon, near Earth objects, the moons of Mars, and Mars itself. “In each one of them, the purpose of the initial human outpost is not to be there and look cool. It is not to unfurl flags and take pretty pictures, and it is not the holy grail of science, although we will get all of those things. It’s to make gas.” That is, each destination will produce propellant that will enable a cost-effective step to the next destination.
“If you do that, a lot of interesting things fall out,” he said. Such an approach would generate demand for propellant in low Earth orbit, enabling lower cost launches (through increased demand for launches) and propellant depots, and also provide a predictable market for new reusable launch vehicles.
Moreover, such an approach could be affordable, as each step in the process would serve as a multiplier in reducing costs versus a direct-to-Mars approach. “It’s my belief that if we pursued this the right way, we actually could afford to do this, all the way out to the first landings on Mars, for the kind of budget NASA’s getting now,” he said.
That strategy, or something like it, is critical to the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program, he argued. Without such a strategy, he said, “we’re going to build a big rocket, and then we’re going to hope a space program shows up to fly it. Any in my opinion, that strategy—the strategy of default—is going to result in the end of the NASA human spaceflight program” when members of Congress question the wisdom of spending several billion dollars a year on that effort and its lack of progress in an era of constricting budgets. “If we haven’t done better in the next ten years than we have in the last ten years, we’re going to lose that fight, and NASA’s human spaceflight activity will end.”