All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2014:

Future growth in space still not being taken seriously (Dec.)

The SpaceShipTwo Crash (Nov.)

To the Rt Hon Greg Clark (Oct.)

Exponential Growth for Another Thousand Years: Growing into an Interstellar Civilisation: Can It Be Done, and If So, How? (Sept.)

Down with the Fermi “Paradox”! (Aug.)

The Great Space Debate – Discussion and Vote (July)

The Great Space Debate: What Should Be the Strategic Goal for Astronautics over the Next 25 Years? (May)

A Four-Point Plan for ESA (April)

Britain’s Major Tim defends the ISS against its critics (March)

Neubrandenburg Thoughts (II): Space for Peace (Jan.)

Creating a Future with Skylon (Jan.)

New in 2015:

Short story The Marchioness

AE posts:

2017: Mars…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 102, 1 May 2014 – 45th Apollo Anniversary Year

=============== AE ===============

The Great Space Debate: What Should Be the Strategic Goal
for Astronautics over the Next 25 Years?

Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK
Talk presented at the British Interplanetary Society, London, 1 May 2014

Introduction to the evening

The eleven years since the Columbia disaster have seen increasing confusion and controversy over the future direction of human spaceflight. At different times and places the goals of a manned return to the Moon, the exploration of Mars or of a near-Earth asteroid have been prioritised, with other voices calling for an end to manned space missions altogether and robotic exploration to take centre stage. Meanwhile the prospects for companies seeking to commercialise human spaceflight have been highly controversial, as has the role of public subsidies in getting their vehicles ready for flight.


Is it possible to identify a key strategic priority for astronautics in the near term that will resolve the confusion? And does there exist general agreement within the BIS as to the way forward, or is the BIS as divided as opinion more generally?

I should like to ask you to vote for your preferred alternative at the end of this evening. That will give a preliminary idea of feeling in the BIS. A video of this meeting will then be put on the BIS website, thanks to Alan Marlow. The plan is to install a voting widget to accompany the video, so that BIS members worldwide can express their opinions.

First, Professor Ian Crawford will talk about the best and most realistic approach from the science point of view. Jerry Stone will then give a view oriented towards space settlement, as he is the leader of the current study project on space colonies. Then I will survey some more diverse opinions, and attempt to sum up, after which there will be an opportunity for general discussion and finally an informal vote will be taken.

Third presentation of the evening, by S.A.

Let’s talk about some of the myths of the space age. Secret Soviet cosmonauts who met their doom on hushed-up Vostok flights! And here’s another one: the claim that America won the race to the Moon. For as we should all know by now, the race to the Moon was really won by… the Soviet Union!

Listen to President John F. Kennedy’s address before a joint session of Congress, 25 May 1961 (0-31 sec.):

“Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

“If we are to win the battle […] between freedom and tyranny […] men everywhere […] are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”

When Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Sea of Tranquility 45 years ago, which road had they taken? The capitalist, pluralist, market democratic road, or the monolithic, socialist, state-controlled command economy road?

Okay, it’s not quite as simple as that: of course the Apollo programme benefited hugely from the competitive capitalist economy and open market of ideas prevalent in America, but not in the Soviet Union. But in the end the facts remain that the Apollo astronauts were, just like their Soviet counterparts, all employees of a department of government. Their missions were government business decreed by the state. The space agency resembled a branch of the military, not an enterprise development scheme.

How many of the astronauts and cosmonauts were military officers? How many were businessmen and entrepreneurs? How did NASA react to the first flight of an independent businessman in 2001? And you’ll have heard the complaint that Harrison Schmitt was the only PhD geologist to fly to the Moon on Apollo, but why does nobody remark how strange it was that NASA did not recruit a single business entrepreneur as lunar module pilot?

So, okay, if you like, America won the race to the Moon. But only by adopting the methods of its rival, in a race the whole point of which was Kennedy’s intention to demonstrate the superiority of American free enterprise over Soviet socialist state planning.

This is how engineer and commentator Rand Simberg put it in an editorial in USA Today (22 Nov. 2013):

“Had the goal [of NASA] actually been to open up the high frontier to humanity, an America operating on its traditional values of individualism and entrepreneurship would have gone to work on it much sooner, and much more effectively, than the centralized state-socialist bureaucracy that we established to beat the Soviets’ state-socialist bureaucracy to the moon. With the recent success of SpaceX and others, we are in fact starting to see this happen, half a century late.”

We could possibly quibble with Simberg’s “half a century late”. Back then there was no space technology, and perhaps only a government programme could have accepted the risks of developing the first orbital rockets and spacecraft. But did we really have to end up accepting for half a century the view that any kind of astronaut spaceflight or lunar and planetary exploration must be for the foreseeable future a government monopoly? Did it have to be so totally dependent upon the flow of government funding rather than private investment in emerging mass markets?

Free enterprise may have taken over geostationary orbit with robotic satellites, but so far as human spaceflight was concerned, whether to orbit or to the Moon and planets, the future was officially seen overwhelmingly as state socialist. Repeated disasters with the Space Shuttle seemed to prove that any kind of manned space travel was so difficult, dangerous and inherently expensive that only governments could attempt it – a lesson that was not preached when the Titanic sank, the Hindenburg burned, or the De Havilland Comet fell out of the sky.

But governments are primarily concerned with earthly matters. They do not have a clear vision of what they should be doing in space, or a commitment to funding spaceflight. And so we’ve seen an erratic trajectory from the Apollo Moon missions, to abandonment of Apollo-Saturn in favour of the Space Shuttle, to a big international space station, to abandonment of the Shuttle, and of the programmes such as the X-33 dedicated to producing a successor, a return to the big rocket and capsule philosophy of Apollo-Saturn in the Constellation programme, abandonment of Constellation and its reinstatement as Orion-SLS, likely future abandonment of the ISS and uncertain prospects for Constellation mark 2 as it weighs up missions to a near-Earth asteroid, the lunar vicinity, the lunar surface, or Mars.

Does anybody else have a clear vision? What are people saying? Let’s look at a selection of views that have come up in the past few years.

Michael Hanlon is a science editor of the Daily Mail, a blogger, journalist and author of books on astronomy, space and the human future. He describes himself as an “unwilling sceptic” about human space travel.

His article in Spaceflight magazine in 2009 was entitled “The madness of men in space”. In it he argued that the wish list dominated by human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars was “too big, too expensive and ill-conceived. It is ambitious but lacks focus and direction. We need a new plan, a whole new raison d’être for space, before it is too late.” Hanlon lambasted the existing programmes: we needed the ISS to give the Shuttle somewhere to fly to, but we needed the Shuttle in order to maintain our access to the ISS. “This”, said Hanlon, “is hundred-billion-dollar lunacy.”

That new plan, he suggested, must be the search for extraterrestrial life. NASA should scrap its manned spaceflight programme altogether, deorbit the ISS, and concentrate on mass-producing robotic probes to send to Mars, Europa, Titan and any other likely suspects in our Solar System. NASA should also launch “a swarm of space telescopes” dedicated to searching for exosolar terrestrial planets, which he calls “the biggest bang-per-buck project imaginable, an Earth-finder”.

Otherwise, Hanlon said, if NASA continued in its current direction then eventually it would be wound up, and manned spaceflight “reduced to a few privateer thrill-rides and a fleet of creaky Chinese crates […] going nowhere in LEO. And life-detection ground to a halt.”

Spaceflight published an equally harsh critical view of the Shuttle and the ISS by former US Air Force officer Michael Sanibel. Again, we heard that these programmes were pointless and a waste of money. Sanibel did however approve of Apollo, and would be in favour of a future manned Mars programme because it would “provide the same impetus to invent new technologies as the Apollo programme did”. Unfortunately, he concluded, going to Mars was too expensive. America could not afford it.

A contrasting view was not long in coming. Responding to President Obama’s cancellation of Constellation, Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham praised the Shuttle for maintaining US pre-eminence in space, and described the ISS as “the most amazing engineering project in history”. He bemoaned the loss of America’s leading position in spaceflight, and criticised the new policy of stimulating private sector companies: “In cancelling Constellation with nothing to take its place, the president is saying the US should not have its own human space programme […]. If NASA wants to participate in human spaceflight, it will have to be through contractors.” Apparently, in Cunningham’s view, American contractors independent of NASA might as well be foreign countries.

“Space exploration”, Cunningham said, “is an activity from which monetary profits cannot be generated, leaving contractors supplying government programmes that do not have to show a profit.” He did not, however, offer any specific analysis of the commercial success of communications satellites, or of the company Space Adventures, or of the future prospects for space tourism or mining activities.

At the same time, the Orion space capsule in development for Constellation was vigorously defended by John Karas, the manager of human spaceflight at Lockheed Martin, builder of Orion. His view of commercial spaceflight was that astronaut safety would be compromised by the profit motive: “I am very concerned that safety and safety standards are at risk. There is a lot of rhetoric about commercial providers.”

In the interview as printed in Spaceflight, Karas did not mention the less than 100% safety record of the Space Shuttle, nor did he consider the political pressures that could and have compromised safety just as easily as commercial ones.

Forty years after the Moon landings, these two men, and many others, were still identifying meaningful manned spaceflight and world leadership in the same with NASA flying its own astronauts on specialist, NASA-owned rockets and spacecraft in pursuit of national goals. State socialism in action.

Here, I think, is a clue as to why these debates are often so emotionally charged, for these discussions about the future course of space exploration also evoke people’s fundamental political beliefs.

Yet the sustainability of the socialist solution continues to face the problem identified by Rand Simberg in his USA Today column: “Kennedy’s legacy in space is a NASA human-spaceflight program that has been rudderless for half a century, because its purpose was never articulated in terms that would justify the massive amounts of money expended on it.” The vision of NASA leading the way into the universe has stumbled again and again when confronted with political reality.

In 1969 vice-president Spiro Agnew masterminded a grandiose post-Apollo plan which President Nixon rejected. Then in 1986 the Sally Ride committee proposed bases on the Moon and Mars. In 1989 this became the Space Exploration Initiative of the first President Bush, but once the projected price tag was shown to Congress the idea was quickly abandoned. In 2004 the second President Bush produced his own Vision for Space Exploration, cancelled by his successor six years later. Of course the second Bush Vision has now been partly revived, though with the loss of its originally clear destination. Orion was saved from the axe and the Ares 5 superbooster morphed into the SLS superbooster. But it’s anyone’s guess whether these programmes will survive the next change of president, or the one after that.

Enter the Global Exploration Strategy, an informal plan agreed by many of the world’s space agencies, including all the ISS partners, but not including China. The Strategy was established in 2007, and updated as the Global Exploration Roadmap in 2011 and most recently 2013.

The Global Exploration Roadmap 2013

In its most recent form, the Roadmap is interesting for its frequent references to developing commercial opportunities in space. These go further than traditional ideas about spinoff for use on Earth, allowing the possibility of commercially owned platforms in low Earth orbit, and even commercial developments on the Moon and elsewhere in the Solar System (p.2, 3, 4, 8, 11, 15). The Roadmap states that the ISS is “reducing the cost of human space flight” (p.2), a statement that is only meaningful in the light of the recent addition of SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to the list of suppliers.

Equally notable is that the Roadmap is moving away a purely Apollo-style mission architecture. A whole page is devoted to using natural resources from the Moon, asteroids and Mars for propellants and life-support (p.23). To be sure, its focus on space refuelling is still only tentative. But it’s clear that the culture is changing, that free enterprise is gradually eroding the socialist citadel that was established by the 1960s race to the Moon. The Roadmap specifically mentions opening up commercial “markets for discovered resources” (p.12).

The Roadmap does not suggest a direct push to Mars, in the manner of Bob Zubrin’s Mars Direct programme. Rather it proposes three complementary “mission themes”, representing three different pathways that converge on Mars. These are: exploration of a small near-Earth asteroid that has been captured into an orbit around the Moon, long-duration flights in space in the lunar vicinity, perhaps at an Earth-Moon lagrange point, and landing of exploration crews on the lunar surface.

The three “themes” are all intended to increase our technical capabilities in complementary ways that contribute to readiness for a Mars mission. The implication is that missions of all three types will have to be successfully concluded before the risks of sending astronauts to Mars have been reduced to an acceptable level. But is this a clear strategy, or a compromise designed to be as inclusive as possible?

NASA is currently focused on its proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission, and has for the time being abandoned the second President Bush’s vision of returning astronauts to the lunar surface. But this is highly controversial. At a recent meeting to discuss the Global Exploration Roadmap, Mark Robinson, principal investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter camera, insisted that the Moon is indeed on the critical path to Mars. Europe, too, is keen to go to the Moon. Bernhard Hufenbach of ESA was quoted as having said at that same meeting: “you can’t build an international partnership if you don’t include the Moon in the exploration roadmap.”

These comments were noted on a blog written by Dr Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute (see comment to this post by JohnG). Spudis is a strong advocate of big government exploration missions, and a critic of NewSpace companies. Recently he posted an approving review of a Fox News programme which equated America’s supposed retreat from space, amongst other things, with American national decline.

He also recently wrote a fictional account of how lunar exploration might have proceeded over the past ten years, which ends: “We now have a reliable, sustainable launch system based on Shuttle hardware. […] We have built a cislunar transportation system with way stations for assembly and fueling. And we have assembled an automated, operating lunar surface outpost, ready to receive its first human inhabitants. If we’d chosen a different path we would be looking instead at a cartoon space program, a series of stunts, imaginary missions and PowerPoint slides […] Thankfully, we chose instead to pursue a program of achievement.”

Engineer Nelson Bridwell has a similar view. He wrote that all NASA needs is long-term objectives and “the same ruthless engineering discipline that put Apollo astronauts on the Moon”. Thanks to NASA’s multi-billion-dollar budget, “space exploration does not need to be profitable”. Even with a reduction of its current budget, “there is a phenomenal amount of exploration that NASA could accomplish.”

His article may have appeared as a response to my own viewpoint piece in Spaceflight, which was intended to kick off this whole debate (view article in jpeg format). My views have changed over the years: I was once an enthusiastic supporter of Apollo-style, big government missions to the Moon and Mars. But always there was the nagging question: what is to save any such programme from cancellation? Apollo, and Skylab after it, were brilliantly successful, yet their political support evaporated. Suppose Congress or an international consortium of governments decides on a bold humans to the Moon or humans to Mars programme? If history is any guide at all, successful or not, ten years down the line it will be cancelled!

The answer, I’ve come to see, can only be for government exploration to stimulate economic growth. Nobody is going to cancel air travel, because it’s become an integral part of the economy. Therefore if space travel is to be sustainable, it must become likewise. When there are a thousand space tourists a month travelling to and from a dozen orbiting space hotels, together with commercial researchers and zero-gravity manufacturers, using commercial orbital refuelling depots supplied robotically from the Moon and near-Earth asteroids, nobody will cancel space travel because it will have become as much an all-pervasive part of modern life as communications satellites or satnav.

But in order for that to happen, the costs of access to space must come way, way down. In that light, America’s supposed retreat from space, its supposed surrender of space to other countries, looks more like American leadership through its commercial transport services. Companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are producing the only innovations that mater in the long run. The UK is poised to take their work a step further when the fully reusable Skylon spaceplane becomes available, revolutionising the whole business of access to space.

When costs to orbit are reduced by a factor of a hundred or more, when passenger flights to and from orbit are literally daily events and reliability is approaching airline levels, then government exploration of the Moon and Mars will become vastly easier. But we do have to have the patience to properly consolidate our position in Earth orbital space before going further. Many people do not have that patience.

Before I finish, I must be sure to thank BIS Council Member Nick Spall for helping to organise this meeting. Unfortunately he can’t be with us this evening, but I should like to include his own view, which is that human exploration beyond low Earth orbit should come the sooner the better, the faster the better, in order to capture the imaginations of politicians and boost their will to fund human space exploration. Nick finds Ian Crawford’s argument that trained astronauts do the best science is very persuasive.

It’s time to sum up. We have here a number of competing views about the way forward in space, which I hope to clarify with the specific question: “What should be the strategic goal for astronautics over the next 25 years?”

What possible answers have we found, which might be recommended to space agencies and companies around the world?

(1) Shut down manned spaceflight altogether. Focus instead on robotic exploration of our Solar System and telescopic exploration of the systems of other stars in the search for extraterrestrial life.

(2) Return astronauts to the Moon in order to build a base there and begin extracting lunar resources, before later going on to Mars.

(3) Gather experience living and working in space above low Earth orbit with long-duration astronaut stays in the lunar vicinity, perhaps at the Earth-Moon lagrange points, either building a new ISS there or parking a small asteroid there for astronauts to visit and explore, before later going on to Mars.

(4) Send astronauts directly to Mars, building a long-term base there, as proposed by Robert Zubrin and the Mars Society.

(5) Put government astronaut exploration beyond Earth orbit on hold. Put space agencies to work supporting private industry in a build-up of infrastructure which consolidates our position in low Earth orbit, reducing the cost of access to space and stimulating growth in commercial markets and traffic levels, on the order of, say, 1000 passengers/month. Focus also on robotic exploration of the Moon and asteroids with a view to spinning off commercially viable extraction industries.

(6) Finally, you may feel that the question has been badly stated. Perhaps you support some other option which is not covered here, or believe that progress requires a little of each of the above.

If so, you now have a chance to raise this, as we have some time for general discussion before concluding with a vote.


Michael Hanlon, “The madness of men in space”, Spaceflight, June 2009, p.210-214.

Michael Sanibel, “Flawed logic of US Space Shuttle”, Spaceflight, May 2010, p.178-181.

Walter Cunningham, “Losing the will to explore space”, Spaceflight, May 2010, p.196-197.

Ken Kremer, “Orion could be ready by 2013”, Spaceflight, May 2010, p.175-177.

Nelson Bridwell, “The Myopia Problem”, Spaceflight, Dec. 2013, p.470.

Stephen Ashworth, “The future of space flight: The case for growth”, Spaceflight, Sept. 2013, p.351 (view article in jpeg format).