Space: what’s NExT?

I’m a child of the Space Age, born a year and a half after Sputnik. Apollo 11 landed on the moon on my 10th birthday; Viking landed on Mars on my 17th. There is no doubt in my mind that if the human race is to survive, we must move out into space, to make use of its resources, to get all our eggs out of the single basket of this vulnerable Earth before the next major asteroid strike–and just because the human exploratory impulse must be served, and space really is, as a certain TV show likes to put it, “the final frontier.”

But I confess I’ve been disappointed with the pace of space exploration. When Apollo landed on the Moon, there were confident predictions of a lunar colony within a decade and a manned mission to Mars by the 1980s. Instead we have the space shuttle (a.k.a. “space truck”) and the often-downsized-and- delayed International Space Station.

It was therefore with great interest that I read this week of a tentative long-range plan for what comes after the space station: a plan that could finally take us back to the moon, out to Mars–and beyond.

The plan, a road-map that outlines where NASA wants to go and what it has to do to get there, will be officially showcased at the World Space Congress in Houston next week. The brainchild of a NASA Exploration Team (NExT, for short), it was outlined to last week.

The first step: construction of a new space habitat at a location in space between the Earth and Moon called L1, for Lagrange 1. A Lagrangian point is a point in space at which a small object, influenced by the gravity of two nearby large objects, will remain more-or-less at rest relative to them. Each pair of massive objects generates five of these points.

L1 is located about 323,000 kilometres from the Earth, 84 percent of the way to the Moon. A space habitat built there could serve as a gateway to the moon and beyond, a spot to test hardware, conduct science, train astronauts for deep-space missions–and build ships for those missions.

What kind of spacecraft? Determining that is another focus of the NExT plan. A program to study new methods of space propulsion is already underway. There are hopes of starting a study of nuclear propulsion, and next year, a new program will begin to study ways of protecting astronauts from radiation over long space flights. Propulsion and radiation protection are related: better propulsion systems would cut down travel time to other parts of the solar system and thus reduce space crews’ exposure to radiation.

Faster trips would also spare crews some of the debilitating effects of long-term life in microgravity. So would artificial gravity, created by spinning some or all of the ship–something else NExT is researching.

A lot of the studies necessary to getting crews to deep-space destinations safely and healthily will be and are already being carried out on the International Space Station; in all, NExT has a list of 55 critical items that must be dealt with.

NExT’s plan doesn’t specify whether the moon or Mars should be the next port of call for human explorers. Certainly there’s a growing understanding that only a human-crewed expedition may be able to answer some of the burning scientific questions concerning Mars, especially the question of whether life existed–or maybe still exists–there. But the Moon is attractive, too. Apollo, more about Cold War bragging rights than scientific exploration, left a lot of questions unanswered. As well, the Moon is both a potential source of enormously valuable mineral resources and relatively close, both in distance and in doability; we could probably have humans back there within five years of making the decision to send them.

Wherever we go, NExT isn’t interested in the short-term plant-the-flag approach of Apollo. It wants to see a sustained and sustainable space effort, through the development of spacecraft that can go wherever in the solar system we want to send them.

It wants, in other words, for us to develop a permanent, long-term, ever-expanding presence in space–exactly what I’ve been looking for since I was a kid.

I used to say I hoped to retire on the moon (one-sixth gravity is refreshing for sore joints and tired hearts). It doesn’t look like I’ll manage it–but maybe the next generation will.

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