On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 launched from Cape Canaveral. A few days later, on Christmas Eve, its crew became the first humans to enter the gravitational pull of another body away from the home planet. The crew’s reading of Genesis from lunar orbit captivated a worldwide audience, and the astronauts brought home what may have been the most profound photograph in history: the famous “Earthrise” showing the blue planet Earth rising over the moon’s desolation, suspended in the dark of space. This was a stunning moment in the history of exploration, leading to the Apollo 11 landing a few months later.
Since coming to office, the administration of President Barack Obama has struggled to develop a sustainable and coherent approach to space exploration, much like other administrations since President Nixon truncated the Apollo program. From that point, NASA embarked along a path of seeking ways to provoke public interest in its inspiring mission. But it became risk-averse and dominated by concerns to preserve its budget, trapping the United States and Europe into low-earth orbit with the combination of the International Space Station (ISS) – an impressive engineering feat producing limited science returns on a huge investment – and the Space Shuttle, which never achieved its goal of routinizing space flight.
Obama inherited a 2004 vision for space exploration announced by President George W. Bush after the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Bush charged NASA to complete the ISS (largely out of deference to European and other international partners), retire the Space Shuttle in 2010, return to the moon, and proceed with human exploration of Mars. Bush’s vision statement was imprecise on the resources and means necessary to implement his guidance.
Obama chose to cancel NASA’s signature Constellation launcher program on the advice of a distinguished commission that concluded the program could not achieve its goals with projected available resources. This decision took the United States government out of the manned space flight launcher business, a decision that drew criticism from industry, from NASA advocates in Congress, from those who see manned space flight as a component of national power, and from some former astronauts including the usually reticent Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon.
Obama opted instead to turn the development of human space flight over to private industry. Private industry can produce strong results, as the June 4 success of Elon Musk’s new SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket demonstrated. That innovative, low-cost (by space standards) rocket may later deliver cargo and, eventually, astronauts to the ISS and low earth orbit. But profit alone cannot produce the large-scale, sustained effort required for major exploration. Obama spoke to a small crowd at Kennedy Space Center in April and suggested that NASA should go to Mars at some point in the distant future, but like his predecessor, he offered little in the way of guidance and resources to bring that goal into clear focus.
Meanwhile, last year, European Union governments met in Prague and agreed to support a major investment in robotic and human spaceflight in cooperation with other space-faring nations including the United States, Russia, Japan, China, and India. The Europeans are accustomed to zigs and zags in American space policy but usually hope not to be left out of whatever course NASA seems to be on at any given moment. Like the Unites States, the EU deferred difficult decisions on resources, and the financial and debt crisis will likely make such decisions less favorable to exploration in the future.
Nations have pursued space exploration for a variety of reasons. The U.S. was rocked by the launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the Soviet Union’s subsequent success in putting the first man into orbit. The American response, energized by President John F. Kennedy, culminated in the Apollo moon landings. Kennedy was driven by cold war ideological competition and the need to demonstrate that free societies were more capable than totalitarian regimes.
The Soviet-American competition was labeled the “space race.” Races generally result in prizes for the winner, and the prize in this case was the historic prestige of being the first nation to send its explorers beyond the home planet. Nations still pursue space exploration for prestige. China’s human space flight program aims to gain for Beijing a decisive credential as a first-rank technological power. In explaining the EU’s decision to increase investment in space exploration, Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen said, “exploration is to open the minds of European citizens without having to answer the question: How useful will it be?” But Verheugen added, “Space exploration has never been driven by human curiosity alone. It is a symbol of global power and prestige. Other countries are rising to the challenge. Europe should not remain sidelined in this process.”
The motivation of a prize to spur exploration was not new to the space age. European explorers were driven by curiosity as well as the prospect of the prizes of money and fame. Recalling the 18th-century British effort to find a method for ships to determine accurately their longitude, NASA has recently used prizes to encourage technology innovations such as the 2009 Regolith Excavation Challenge. The competitors’ goal was to build a robot that can “dig up and deposit at least 150 kilograms of material from a simulated lunar surface and deposit it in a collection bin.” The $500,000 prize was won by a team led by a college student. Google has established a Lunar X Prize, a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth.
After the Apollo era, America’s robotic space efforts have seen some spectacular successes. Images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope have contributed enormously to scientific understanding of the universe and have filled billions of people with awe. Mars orbiters and landers have conducted fascinating investigations of that planet. NASA investigators announced last year that by using data from Hubble and from a second spaceborne instrument, the Spitzer Telescope, they had detected a second planet beyond our solar system with the basic chemistry thought necessary for life. These high-cost, high-risk (in financial terms), high-payoff science efforts are the kinds of projects that NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and other governments can at least finance and perhaps execute.
But neither the success of unmanned spacecraft for exploration, nor the diminished achievements of post-Apollo manned spaceflight, has erased the demand for manned space exploration. Human beings want to move out and explore, to go beyond Earth themselves rather than leave the job to cameras and robots, however excellent those instruments may be.
Europe and America have an opportunity to advance human exploration as well as unmanned science missions. But to do so, President Obama and his European colleagues will have to chart a new route. They must view space exploration as the work of our entire societies. And to engage the best of our societies in space exploration, we should return to that tested method of encouraging exploration -- the prize.
Most of NASA’s human exploration budget, and as much as Europe can contribute, should be pulled from government-run programs and put into a fund for major space exploration prizes. Over the course of a few years, money would be available for prizes on the scale of tens of billions of dollars or euros for a successful Mars mission or a visit to an asteroid. This would attract teams of individuals and corporations whose drive for exploration exceeds by far the motivation of a government program.
NASA and ESA would continue to work on the common infrastructure that all prize-contenders would need, such as launch facilities, communications, and life support. But the energy and creativity, and the risk-taking mindset, that must all come together to advance human exploration would come from American and European societies in partnership. Meanwhile, ESA and NASA would be able to focus on financing the kinds of high-cost/high-payoff science that have succeeded (and occasionally, by the nature of risk, failed) in recent years.
In 2004, a team led by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen took aim at the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million. Established in 1996 by Peter Diamandis with funds from several foundations, corporations, and individuals, the prize called for successfully launching a reusable manned vehicle on a sub-orbital spaceflight twice within two weeks. During the team’s first flight, the vehicle reached space but unexpectedly tumbled at the top of its trajectory. The team’s engineers analyzed the data carefully. Then, rather than announcing a multi-year delay for expensive modifications as occurs in so many government programs, they told the public that they understood the problem, that the risk was acceptable, and that they would launch again as planned. On the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik launch, they took home their prize. These adventurers can give Europe and America a bright future of space exploration.
Joseph Wood is a Senior Resident Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).