Buzz Aldrin on the moon. (Credit: NASA)

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

-President John F. Kennedy to Congress, May 25, 1961

America in Space: The Long Trip Back to the Moon—and Beyond

By Ahmad A. Malik

It has been 43 years since human beings have set foot on another world. NASA’s seminal Apollo program was America’s golden era of space exploration—a decade that culminated in six missions that landed 12 astronauts on the Moon in just over three years. The United States hasn’t sent an astronaut beyond low-earth orbit since then.

Deep cuts in NASA’s budgets, sea changes in the global political climate and a sharp decline in public interest have gradually diminished America’s commitment to human space exploration over these past four decades. But now, even with budgets that are a fraction of what they were during the Apollo era, NASA is making a push to return humans to the deeper reaches of the Solar System, devoting resources to research and planning for missions that someday land astronauts on Mars and back on the Moon.

President Barack Obama has expressed support for sending humans to Mars by the 2030s, but he presides at a time very different from the presidency of John F. Kennedy and hasn’t delivered the fiscal support required to meet that goal. Without the determined support of the President and a public enthralled with space exploration, NASA’s lofty goals are almost an afterthought in the nation’s priorities. But within NASA itself, there is a revived sentiment for American leadership in space exploration that lands astronauts on other planetary bodies once more.

This renewed commitment has been ushered in by planetary scientists, engineers and explorers seeking to breathe new life into NASA and return to its founding principles as a program that pushes the envelope. The space agency’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), funded for $75 million over five years beginning in 2013, and the RIS4E project that is one of its nine nodes, are part of that renewed effort to meet the daunting challenge of reclaiming space as an American frontier.

A Look Back: The Apollo Era

When President Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress a few months after taking office, he challenged the United States with an ambitious, seemingly impossible task: reaching the Moon in less than nine years. As it stood, the United States had little more than fifteen minutes of experience in space—Alan Shepard’s single orbit atop Freedom 7 three weeks earlier.

Alan Shepard aboard the Freedom 7 prior to launch in 1961. Credit: NASA

Alan Shepard aboard the Freedom 7 prior to launch in 1961. Credit: NASA

It was a race to space motivated by the Cold War. The Soviet Union had won the first event, sending a cosmonaut into orbit 23 days before Shepard’s trip. But Kennedy was undaunted and the country was all in. Beating its rival superpower to the Moon wasn’t just a point of national pride, it was seen as a matter of national defense—a triumph of good over evil.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things,” Kennedy said in a more famous 1962 speech. “Not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

In the years that followed, NASA was allocated resources it needed, and despite the engineering and scientific obstacles of such a mind-boggling endeavor, the United States landed its Lunar Excursion Module—the LEM—on the nearside of the Moon five months ahead of Kennedy’s deadline. It was a feat of human ingenuity enabled by the collective intellectual capital of NASA’s corps of scientists and engineers, along with the best of the private sector, such as Grumman Aircraft, a military contractor that built the LEM in its plant on Long Island.

There were five more lunar landings after the first one, and then the quest to reach and explore the Moon ended. After Apollo 17 in December 1972, the U.S. space program moved on to science in the much closer destinations of lower-Earth orbit, first with Skylab for the rest of the ‘70s, then with 30 years of space shuttles. The United States hasn’t had a manned spacecraft of its own since the shuttle era ended in 2011. Since then, the only way to space for American astronauts is the deal NASA made with the Russian space agency to buy seats to the International Space Station aboard its Soyuz spacecraft. Nearly half a century after going to the Moon, the United States is still trying to do “the other things,” as Kennedy referred to exploration of the Solar System beyond.

Watch: President Kennedy’s 1962 speech on the moon

The whole question of space exploration is one that’s been knocking about, really, since the end of Apollo,” said Dean Eppler, a field volcanologist on the RIS4E team and a NASA veteran whose jobs have included overseeing earth science research aboard the International Space Station. Apollo was “the right way to get to the Moon by the end of the decade,” he said, but not necessarily a blueprint for sustained space exploration after that.

For one thing, NASA’s annual budgets in those years were between $75 billion and $100 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars—upwards of five percent of the total federal budget. It was more than enough to reach otherwise unimaginable heights in dizzying time. Today’s NASA appropriations are roughly $17 billion a year, less than one percent of the federal budget.

“We can easily see in hindsight that the Apollo era is a complete anomaly,” said Chris Impey, author of “Beyond: Our Future in Space,” and other books about space and deputy head of the astronomy department at the University of Arizona. “It was an amazing feat that was really driven by the Cold War in a geopolitical pissing contest with our adversary. It was supported by a budget at a completely unsustainable level. . . . We will never have budgetary climate like that ever again.”

The payoff went beyond beating the Russians, or even revolutionizing aeronautical engineering and planetary science. NASA in its heyday had a profound impact on the generation of children growing up at a time of unprecedented discovery and adventure.

“On a clear day after a lunch, you could actually go outside in the backyard and see the rocket overhead,” said Yvonne Pendleton, an astrophysicist who grew up in Key West, Fla., in the 1960s and now serves in NASA’s senior leadership as the director of its SSERVI initiative.

“From the time I was quite young, I remember telling anybody who would listen that when I grew up I wanted to work for NASA and study the stars – which is kind of a crazy thing to say, because back then NASA wasn’t even studying the stars. But lo and behold, that’s exactly what I ended up doing.”

Engraining young people with a sense of importance and urgency for discovery through space exploration is a common sentiment within NASA. According to Impey, the average age of current NASA engineers is around 56, meaning that most remember the Apollo missions and grew up at a time when launches to space (and capsules parachuting to sea) were part of the fabric of American culture. Today’s younger generation of space and planetary scientists are passionate advocates of space exploration as a national imperative.

“If you want to get kids interested in science and math, then you should have a vigorous space exploration program that is highly publicized and well-funded—one that does great and inspiring things – not just sitting in low-earth-orbit for twenty years,” said Timothy Glotch, a professor of geosciences at Stony Brook University and the principal investigator of the RIS4E project.

After the Apollo program was cancelled in 1972, budgets tightened and space exploration lost its edge. Apart from robotic exploration of the Solar System in the late 1970s and 1980s, spaceflight beyond low-earth orbit was at a complete standstill.

“NASA lost a lot of talent in the late ’60s and early ’70s when the budget dove,” Impey said. “That was the rise of Silicon Valley and the computing industry, where clearly a large amount of engineering talent who cut their teeth on Apollo went elsewhere, on to bigger challenges in a different sector.”

 Reignitiing: SSERVI Tries Something New

As an agency under the executive branch of the federal government, NASA’s agenda is set by each Presidential administration and its appropriations are subject to Congressional approval after the yearly political tussles of the federal budget process, like any other federal agency. NASA awards grants to research groups and individuals, though space scientists also receive funding from other sources such as the National Science Foundation.

NASA, like other agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, is headed by an administrator appointed by the President. The current administrator, Charles Bolden, is a career NASA manager and a former astronaut. He oversees an agency with various mission “directorates” that are organized by scientific initiatives and overseen by program directors.

“I think the NASA program managers, in general, do a very good job in shielding individual scientists from the higher-level politics,” Glotch says. “So Congress wants to do this, the President wants to do that – that’s great. But the program managers fight and scratch and claw to protect the budgets for their programs.”

In an effort to consolidate costs and maximize research output, NASA established SSERVI in 2013 as a quasi-expansion of the Lunar Science Institute, with Pendleton named its director. Through a concept of removing massive overhead costs, SSERVI functions as a virtual institute by bridging the gap between scientists across continents. While technically run out of NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, SSERVI has effectively streamlined the budgeting process by creating a pool of money aimed at cogent purposes.

SSERVI launched with an innovative emphasis on collaboration and efficiency across many teams. It’s a trend in science overall but marked a departure for NASA’s conventional budgeting culture, in which individual annual grants are typically in the $100,000 range.

“We thought that those smaller yearly grants were insufficient,” Pendleton said. “We thought that any team would require on order of a million a year, and that the duration should be at least five years.” SSERVI’s total budget is $75 million over five years, which is divided among nine teams, including RIS4E.

“I think the process for deciding those missions and priorities is good and is mostly immune from political considerations. It’s mostly just carving out from a small pot – these things are expensive and difficult. So the community is just chaffing at the pace of doing this kind of work,” said Impey.

SSERVI, in its second year, has published close to 300 peer-reviewed papers, a third of which have been the product of cross-team collaborations. “I think that the greatest scientific discoveries happen at the intersection of many disciplines and I think we can really accelerate that within the virtual institute model, because we have these teams that were each selected to do something different, but related,” said Pendleton.

The idea for SSERVI budded in 2010, when President Obama wanted to renew the nation’s commitment to solar system exploration – specifically, near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), and eventually Mars. SSERVI is part of that effort, exploring questions in a range of disciplines of space science, from plasma physics to geology, that are fundamental to reigniting the space program.

“We are going to send humans into space,” Pendleton said. “We want to do it with the knowledge that what we’re going to do is worthwhile in terms of the gain we’re going to get from either the scientific query, the technology development, or experience. And we want to make sure we can bring them back safely.”

All the while, NASA is functioning with a budget that, compared to the Apollo era, is minuscule. “Some people look at the NASA budget now and say “Wow, its $17 billion!” said Eppler. “I always tell people that if you take a penny out of your pocket, less than that per tax dollar is what NASA gets. It’s shocking to people to realize that.”

Impey adds, “When the public is polled on what NASA’s portion of the federal budget is the percentage they think is always five times higher than what it actually is. People think we’re spending way more on this than we actually are.”

Mars and Beyond: The Future of Spaceflight

NASA has made strides in moving the space program forward since the end of the shuttle program in 2011, with the establishment of programs like SSERVI and successful unmanned missions. The Mars rover landing in 2012 and the spectacular pictures of Pluto recently sent back from the New Horizons spacecraft have captured the public’s attention more than any space news since the heyday of the shuttle (including the 1986 Challenger disaster). But those are long steps from sending humans into the deeper reaches of the Solar System.

“The official administration goal is to get humans to Mars,” Glotch said. “If you want [do that] in a timely fashion, then you have to pay up. We accomplished a lot of very important things in the Apollo missions, but the funding was way higher. You can’t do great things on shoestring budgets.”

“Mars has always been a destination people are interested in. And for obvious reasons – it’s the only planet besides the Earth that seems to hover around the edge of habitability,” Eppler said. “But Mars is a huge distance away compared to the Moon, and I think even more importantly, Mars represents a jump in the mission envelope. From Apollo to Mars is a little bit like Alan Shepherd to Apollo.”

Glotch points out that economic studies have shown that the space program is an economic driver and jobs creator that returns eight dollars on every federal dollar invested. But it’s an argument that doesn’t go very far in today’s political climate.

Addressing this lapse in funding, in the eyes of NASA scientists, is not a matter of disrupting the federal budget on the scale of the space race. But the four-year Presidential election cycle circumvents a long-term national vision for human spaceflight, and the past few administrations haven’t shown a commitment to the consistent funding sufficient for reinvigorating the space program.

“I think, unless something drastic happens, we’re not going to see a huge increase in funding for space exploration in general,” Glotch said. “So I think the way we have to go is much, much more international cooperation. If the U.S. says we’re not going to be leaders and we’re not going to pay to be leaders, then we have to take a role as a partner with Europe, Asian, India, and even China.”

SSERVI itself just took a small step in that direction with the addition of an Australia team, announced at this year’s Exploration Science Forum at Ames Research Center in California Partnering with Curtin University in Perth, SSERVI will be interacting with Australia’s planetary science community, bringing the number of SSERVI’s international partners to nine.

NASA, meanwhile, has waded into unchartered waters to get its astronauts to space. After the shuttle program ended, it struck a deal with the Russian space agency to buy seats to the International Space Station aboard the Soyuz spacecraft –$62.7 million roundtrip before the fare went up to $70 million when the contract was renewed for six more flights in 2014.

But that might be the last contract with the Russians as private American companies get into the game. In the fall of 2014, NASA awarded contracts totaling nearly $7 billion to Boeing and SpaceX to carry American astronauts to the space station from American soil for the first time since the shuttle was scuttled. And many more companies, including Virgin and Sierra Nevada Corp. are developing spacecraft to compete for NASA contracts.

“There are a lot of companies innovating and exploring possibilities with commercial spaceflight and tourism,” Impey said. “Upwards of 15 private space companies have gotten their start in the last five or six years. There are also a lot of very interesting things happening.”

NASA veterans like Eppler are wistful for the days when the country was committed to space for the long haul. “The way to space is hard, it’s long, and it’s expensive,” Eppler said. “I would argue that it isn’t about putting a huge amount of money into it in a short time, but it’s about putting a reasonable amount of money consistently and push against the goal that everyone agrees on and doesn’t change on a regular basis. If you have those things together, you will succeed.”

Despite the uncertainty of the future and the move to outsourcing space launches to private companies, NASA, says Impey, is still a crown jewel of the federal government nearly 60 years after its founding at the height of the Cold War. It is still capable of jaw-dropping science and awe-inspiring missions that can inspire the imagination and lead American exploration and innovation.

“We’re a species of explorers—it’s in our nature,” said Glotch. “NASA is the last great agency in the United States tasked with exploring the unknown, and what we can learn about ourselves, our solar system and beyond.”

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