The World's Forum for Aerospace Leadership

  • Donate
  • Press Room
  • Renew
  • View Cart
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Deep Space: Relaunching American Exceptionalism

    By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

    Deep_Space_Panel_Jul2012The United States must continue to explore space, yet lawmakers, policy experts and the general public must understand that there are substantial technical and medical barriers to further exploration initiatives which must be overcome before expanded exploration is possible. That was the message from AIAA’s “Deep Space: Relaunching American Exceptionalism” panel on July 24 at the Rayburn House Office Building.

    Participants on the panel were: Dr. James Green, director, Planetary Science Division, NASA; Col. Brian Duffy, U.S. Air Force (retired), vice president and Johnson Space Center program manager, Exploration Systems, ATK; Steve Price, director, business development, Lockheed Martin Corp.; Dr. Kris Lehnhardt, M.D., attending physician and assistant professor, George Washington University; Dr. Ralph L. McNutt Jr., physicist, and the Science and Analysis Branch Scientist for Space Science, Space Department, John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The panel was moderated by Dr. Scott Pace, director, Space Policy Institute, The George Washington University.

    Congressman Randy Hultgren (Ill. – 14th) provided opening remarks to the gathering, pointing out that from driving a demand for highly specialized technologies which then “spin off” to the American public, to opening new gateways to medical research, space exploration and science drive the American economy. Hultgren continued, reminding the standing room only crowd that “landing on the Moon is just as much a part of our national narrative as D-Day, the Constitution, or the Civil Rights Era, it is one of the few events in time where people can remember exactly where they were, and what they were doing,” he continued “our ability, as a nation, to put our people on another body is the textbook definition of execeptionalism!” Hutlgren concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education drives our future, we need to find ways to take that into account in daily lessons in our schools and find ways to inspire and engage young people. We have to help people focus on space, as the space program is such a great beacon for inspiring young people to enter the STEM fields.”

    To answer the question “why explore?,” NASA’s Dr. Green led the audience through a review of the planetary wonders that exist in our solar system, starting off his talk with the wry observation that, thanks to ongoing scientific discovery, most of what he learned in his Earth science classes in school was “wrong.” From Ganymede, the largest moon in our solar system, with its deep ocean and magnetic field, to Enceladus and its water geysers, to Titan and its ability to answer questions about the formation of early life on Earth, the universe is full of bodies which must be explored if we are to further our knowledge about the space we inhabit. Green concluded his remarks by pointing out the need for life sciences to be integrated into all future exploration missions, pointing out that “if you explore beyond low earth orbit (LEO), you will need planetary scientists to go along with the missions – it’s not Star Trek, if we do send humans out to planets, asteroids, the Moon, etc., we need to know, beyond a doubt, that we can bring them home alive.”

    After Green’s review of heavenly wonders, Col. Duffy took the floor to explain the “how” of exploration. He started his remarks by reminding the crowd that “getting anything out of Earth’s atmosphere going 26,000 feet per second, and then getting the people on that mission home again, is not easy. It takes an awful lot of directed, controlled energy to make that happen.” He explained that “the first hundred miles and the last hundred miles of any mission is as important as all other parts of the mission, thus one of the requirements we need to consider, for safe operation, is what a vehicle should look like? To answer that question, Duffy walked the audience through a review of vehicle and engine configurations needed for many of the proposed exploration missions. He concluded his discussion echoing Green, by pointing out that despite whatever the vehicle looked like, or what the engines were set up to power it, ultimately any deep space exploration mission would be run by humans, and with that we need a much better understanding of how they will life and function in the deep space environment. He also discussed the necessity of international partnerships for future exploration missions. Lockheed Martin’s Steve Price treated the audience to a ten minute video laying out the argument for why we explore the universe. He highlighted the necessity for the space community, particularly its exploration segment, to continue explaining why exploration is necessary and valuable for our nation. He also reviewed what Lockheed Martin is working on to further our exploration of space, including next generation radio isotope power systems, and other innovative technologies which will be needed as we continue to explore space. Price concluded his segment by showing the attendees a video which explained how the engineering and science communities come together to further our progress in space.

    Dr. Lehnhardt began his presentation with the assurance that despite that some of the information he would be presenting would seem to be negative toward exploration, that he was not in fact “trying to be a downer.” He then gave a thorough review of how the life sciences are crucial to furthering exploration of space. He pointed out that two of the biggest challenges to furthering human exploration of space are the effects of radiation and the effects of micro-gravity on the human body. He reminded the audience that at this time, “there are no real, solid designs which will counteract the effects of radiation on astronauts,” and that is particularly problematic given the impacts of long-term radiation exposure on the human body, including the risks of cancer and other disorders brought about by the exposure. Lehnhardt also explained the array of health problems which can be brought on by prolonged exposure to space’s microgravity environment – from heart problems, to problems with balance and coordination, to increased intracranial pressure, those who live and work in a microgravity environment are faced with a range of health challenges. Lehnhardt closed his presentation by outlining the areas for potential research prior to undertaking future exploration missions – “improving the speed of transit time between Earth and outlying destinations, studying the effects of space radiation on tissue, the development of better radiation shielding, and improved countermeasures to the microgravity environment.

    Ralph McNutt closed the panel presentation with a discussion of future power systems for exploration missions. According to McNutt, radioisotope power (RPS) is a solution for a lot of the propulsion problems which create nagging questions about future exploration efforts. However, McNutt pointed out that the necessary element for these power systems, Plutonium 238 is in short supply around the world, with only “30 kilograms of it remaining in the United States.” McNutt explained that the last American P-238 was created in 1988, and that at this time only Russia has a large stock pile of the material, and “they aren’t selling it.”McNutt explained that the timeframe for making a new supply of P-238 would take five to seven years, and cost between 80 to150 million dollars in start-up costs. McNutt estimated that by using the existing facilities, the U.S. could produce 1.5 to 5 kilograms of the material a year. He concluded by stating that without P-238, future exploration efforts could be severely hampered.

    All of the panelists, in the Q&A period that followed the panel presentations, were firm on trhee points: First, the medical obstacles to exploration really do pose great challenges, and demand that the aerospace community continue to research them intensely to provide the answers along with the technology needed to ensure that future exploration missions are as safe as possible for those undertaking them. Second, the promise of exploration, and of the discoveries made via exploration, are so important to the economic and national security of the United States that lawmakers must continue to fund the scientific and technical programs needed to facilitate future exploration missions. The last point that the panel underscored was that other nations are busy exploring the heavens, from the Russian Space Federation’s exploration of Venus, to the European Space Agency’s upcoming Cosmic Vision program, to Chinese interest in manned exploration of the Moon, the world is exploring space, so the U.S. must make sure that we continue play an active role as a good international partner with the space community in further exploration ventures.