US should lead the space race for Mars and mining asteroids

US should lead the space race for Mars and mining asteroids
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Perhaps the most common question a planetary scientist hears about space exploration is “should we go back to the moon, or go onward to Mars?” It is an excellent question that was given new life by Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceUS Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy switches allegiance, joins Great Britain's team Pelosi to Democrats: 'Are you ready?' House Republicans on Judiciary strategize ahead of Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE’s assertion the United States should, again, land astronauts on the lunar surface.

That said, the question is much too narrowly focused.

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I believe it is virtually certain we will continue human space exploration — eventually — unless a major global disaster saps our resources or will to do so. But will politics, commercialization, science or military interests dominate the enterprise? 

 

Politics will always play a role in large, costly and dangerous undertakings. And though the commercial payoffs of space exploration have the potential to be enormous, the groundwork in robotics and artificial intelligence needed for sustained profitably in commercializing resources on the moon and asteroids is still decades away. As for science, the return on human space exploration has revolutionized our understanding of the universe, but that return is dwarfed by what can be accomplished by much cheaper and safer robotic missions.

That leaves us with the military interests, which are immediate yet frightening. Every major military power realizes space is the ultimate “high ground” for battle, and that whoever “owns” space will dominate future global military conflicts. The U.S. Department of Defense spends more on space applications than NASA, and that doesn’t include “black” projects. So it’s easy to see why human space exploration will almost certainly occur if for no other reason than military interests. 

Still, there are many non-military reasons for taking on the large costs and associated danger of human space exploration. 

For example, the truly vast resources contained in the asteroids. In just one medium sized asteroid, say, 1 kilometer in diameter, there is enough water and carbon to sustain a medium-sized city. In that same asteroid there are more rare Earth elements, such as those used in computer chip manufacturing, than have been mined in all of human history.

In that same asteroid, there is enough water to provide fuel for spacecraft, metals to manufacture habitats, carbonaceous materials to grow crops, and tons of gold, silver and platinum. It has been said that whoever ends up controlling the mining of asteroids will be the first true trillionaires. 

There also are situations in which “humans in the loop” can greatly improve decision-making in the unique and unexplored environments in space. In our search for life and/or evidence of past life on Mars, there is a real need for humans to evaluate the many complex signatures of chemicals and minerals on and under the planet’s surface.

This brings us to the current state of human space exploration. 

The United States hasn’t flown humans into space since the shuttle program was discontinued in 2011. Our astronauts have been hitching rides to the International Space Station on Russia’s Soyuz rockets. NASA has been working with industry for over a decade to develop a modular approach to human space flight that can accommodate missions to Earth orbit, the surface of the moon and to asteroids. This system, called the Space Launch System, is highly flexible and will be the backbone for America’s human space exploration for the foreseeable future.  

Recently, our government’s revitalization of the National Space Council, an organization mostly dormant since its founding in 1989 by the George H.W. Bush administration, completely changes how decisions will be made about NASA’s direction. The council has a varied membership, including representatives from the commercial space industry, the military and business. It includes politicians as well.

It’s too soon to know which perspective will dominate, and some very good opportunities arise from increased interaction with the commercial space industry, but it could dramatically change how NASA decides on what objectives to pursue.

There is concern that the council could increase the military influence on NASA’s goals. The suggestion of forming a Space Corps, modeled after the Air Force’s split from the Marines in 1947, could lead to permanent manned military outposts in space. This is greatly disturbing because it sets the tone of space as first and foremost a battleground. 

Whatever happens in the political arena, human exploration and eventual development of space is inevitable. It is probably just as inevitable that it will be driven by military objectives, not civilian, scientific or commercial goals. So in coming years it will be more challenging to keep civilian perspectives in the forefront of discussions about NASA’s future.

Michael E. Summers is a planetary scientist at George Mason University and a co-investigator in NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.