The third member of the witness panel was Paul Spudis, a senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the Universities Space Research Association. Spudis’ research is focused on the geology of the moon. In his opening remarks, Spudis laid out reasons why NASA and humanity should not only return humans to the surface of the moon, but also develop an entire infrastructure in cislunar space (the space between Earth and the moon) that would include “transport vehicles, staging nodes, deep-space habitats, power stations and fuel depots.”
In the journey to send humans to other planets, a pit stop at the moon might be the right way to go, Spudis argued. A moon base might help humans develop technologies and know-how to survive on Mars. Humans could potentially harvest resources from the moon, like water, which can be used to keep humans alive — as well as broken up into oxygen and hydrogen to fuel spacecraft. Having access to those resources could make a trip to Mars more feasible, he said. (This is a discussion going on in congress for some time).
“America’s space program is in disarray,” Spudis said. “What we need is a logically arranged set of short-term, realizable space goals that are not only interesting in and of themselves, but whose attainment will build capability in the long term.”
Spudis also spoke about the need to have crewed spacecraft that can be used to visit satellites that humans are relying on more and more for communications and other daily services, such as GPS.
“Many of these satellites are national security assets. Satellites upon which we are critically dependent,” Spudis said. Currently, when those satellites break, often the only option is to let them die and replace them, Spudis said.
“If we could move people and machines throughout various locales in cislunar space, we would be able to replace, construct, upgrade and maintain satellites,” he said.
Spudis also said that China is developing the ability to “travel throughout and loiter within cislunar space,” which might enable the country to disable satellites belonging to other countries. Such a move would put the United States at a disadvantage if it didn’t have the same capabilities, he said.
A cislunar program would also offer NASA a set of goals that could be obtained on much shorter timelines than a human mission to Mars. The appeal of financing a set of shorter-term goals, rather than a single, long-term goal, was echoed by subcommittee member Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., who expressed concern at the prospect of investing in a human Mars mission, only to have it set aside if a more pressing priority arose.
It is highly unlikely that the United States would be able to afford to simultaneously pursue a human mission to Mars while also deploying human missions to the moon or cislunar space, said Young during his testimony.
If congress decided to push for NASA to pursue a human mission to Mars, Young said, the agency would need to develop a specific plan in the near future “that takes us from today to humans on Mars.” He listed a dozen things that such a plan would need to address, including defining intermediate missions that would be needed to prepare for a Mars trip, assessing risk, getting an idea of the resources that would need to be allocated and applying those resources “in the most effective manner.”
“An argument against a plan at the current time is that we are not ready to finalize the necessary elements of the plan,” Young said. “I believe a strength of NASA program management is to establish a plan relatively early, with the recognition that as new information becomes available, the plan can be changed.”
“We have our work cut out to us,” subcommittee chair Brian Babin, (R-Texas, 36th District) said in his closing comments. “I agree that whatever NASA puts their mind to we can do. But we do have the parameters of an almost 20 trill dollar national debt that we have at this time. … I think we have our marching orders. We just have to get organized on this.”