“Flexible Path: The Future Course of Human Exploration”
On Monday, June 21, the NASA Academy interns had the opportunity to listen to a presentation given by George Schmidt at NASA Glenn. Entitled “Flexible Path: The Future Course of Human Exploration,” it outlined a compromise approach to human spaceflight that promised to operate human missions faster than NASA’s current program of record, Constellation. George came to Glenn after a number of tours at other NASA Centers and has an accomplished educational background, possessing numerous advanced degrees in technical fields.
George opened his presentation by describing the current paradigm of human exploration of the solar system. In this, operations on the surface of the moon are to be conducted first, after which a manned Mars landing will take place. The expected price tag for these endeavors is upwards of hundreds of billions of dollars over the course of the development and operation cycles, George noted, making them all but untenable in the current political and economic environment.
Dr. Schmidt proceeded to discuss other destinations in space that have the potential to be just as useful or scientifically interesting, but also significantly cheaper to obtain. These include Earth-Sun Lagrange points (gravitationally stable regions of space where it is advantageous to place satellite observatories and other such spacecraft), the moons of Mars, Near Earth Objects that may possess valuable resources, and the orbit of Venus. All of these destinations have something in common: they do not require entering a deep planetary gravity well which must later be departed from. George noted that the required change in velocity (or “delta V”, essentially a measure of the fuel required to perform a maneuver) to reach the surface of a body is often significantly greater than the change in velocity required to reach that body from Earth. Missions that do not require surface landings are thus significantly easier to accomplish and design.
The additional benefit of visiting these alternative destinations comes in the form of required infrastructure. The Constellation Program, Dr. Schmidt noted, required multiple launch vehicles, a crew spacecraft, a surface lander, surface infrastructure (buildings, rovers, etc), and large transfer vehicles for visits beyond the Moon. By eliminating missions that do not require landings, a significant portion of the engineering development simply disappears. However, it was noted that the two Ares rockets and the Orion crew spacecraft are still necessary for any human missions.
Additionally, Flexible Path does not seek to forever eliminate destinations such as the surface of Mars and the Moon from future spaceflight activities. What it does, according to George Schmidt, is to advance politically obtainable goals that can be accomplished now without requiring five or six expensive vehicles to be developed simultaneously before any American heads back into outer space. Surface missions may take place in the future, when the engineering funding and manpower is available to sustainable develop the required hardware needed for those missions.
Finally, George noted that Flexible Path is an architecture that brings together the best of both worlds, so to speak. Currently, manned space operations mostly exist apart from robotic exploration. Flexible path can enhance robotic exploration by placing humans in the vicinity of the vehicles (which are likely on the surface of a body) they are controlling, improving communication times and mission flexibility. In this sense, Flexible Path has a number of analogies to exploring the Titanic wreck or clearing up the BP oil spill, George noted. Human divers are not swimming a mile below the surface of the ocean. Instead, robots are sent to perform specialized tasks too dangerous for man. However, these robots are not controlled from half the world away but from the surface of the ocean they are operating in, bettering mission flexibility and reliability. Flexible path promises to offer similar benefits to robotic exploration of the surface of Mars, the Moon, and other bodies.