Critical partnerships for the future of human space exploration
One thing everyone can agree on with respect to the Obama Administration's intention to cancel the Constellation program: it has triggered a vigorous debate about the future of NASA and the role that organization will play in humanity's next steps into the solar system. Numerous articles posted in The Space Review have illuminated the scope of this debate, from its fundamental assumptions about the value of space exploration for the United States and its people, to the variety of ways in which a post-shuttle program of human exploration beyond LEO might be carried out.
In reading about and pondering these issues, it seems to me that there are three critical partnerships that will reshape NASA, and the larger vision of space exploration it represents, well into the 21st century. Exploring the current debate in the context of these three partnerships might help illuminate how future human expeditions beyond LEO will be carried out. A brief review the assumptions behind NASA's Constellation program, and its technological godfather, Apollo, will help set the stage for this discussion.
The Apollo missions were unquestionably the greatest achievement of manned space flight, and among the greatest achievements in the history of human exploration. No one who was fortunate enough to be alive to witness mankind's first visit to another world will ever forget it. John F. Kennedy's passionate commitment to sail into "this new ocean" of space became the model of presidential vision and leadership.
Constellation has been described as "Apollo on steroids." It replicates many of the systems developed over forty years ago for the first manned Moon landings, with the intention of returning astronauts to the Moon sometime in the next decade. On the face of it, this sounds encouraging for those of us who want to see astronauts resume the journeys beyond Earth orbit that ended so abruptly with Apollo 17. But as NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver has noted, various presidents and congressional leaders have tried to "re-do" Apollo for the last forty years. Clearly they have not succeeded.