In the classic science-fiction television series, Star Trek, the mission for starship Enterprise was set out in grandiose terms: “to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The Apollo moon landings 40 years ago suddenly made such visions of heading out to face the unknown seem a whole lot less impossible. The iconic pictures that millions back on earth saw of humans bouncing about on another world appeared to signal the start of a new era of space exploration.

But it was not to be. Ever since the last two humans who walked on the moon returned home in 1972, subsequent spacefarers have ended up circling the earth endlessly at close proximity. It looked as if the excitement and dangers of space exploration had given away to the monotony of spacesuit-clad construction crews putting together the International Space Station.

Now the U.S., which has the world’s most active human spaceflight programme, is approaching a crossroads. The International Space Station is nearing completion and the Space Shuttle will be taken out of service in the next few years. The U.S. Administration faces a difficult decision over what to do next and, perhaps more importantly, how to go about funding any follow-on effort. The choices it makes will deeply influence what human beings are able to achieve by travelling out into space in the next few decades.

Two recent reports, one of them from a high-level committee established by the U.S. space agency, NASA, have recommended sending humans beyond earth orbit on voyages of exploration. Moreover, they also urge the U.S. to do so in collaboration with other countries, including emerging space powers like China and India.

The goals of human-led space exploration must first be spelt out clearly, remarked the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee. NASA appointed the 10-member committee at the request of the Obama Administration to examine its current plans and help chart the best trajectory for the future. The committee, headed by Norman Augustine who retired as head of the U.S. aerospace company Lockheed Martin Corporation, has just submitted its final report.

Destinations that humans should travel to must be derived from the choice about its goals, said the committee.

“The ultimate goal of human exploration is to chart a path for human expansion into the solar system,” it noted. This, it went on, “is an ambitious goal, but one worthy of U.S. leadership in concert with a broad range of international partners.”

A group of U.S. academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) too has a similar perspective. Exploration was one of the primary objectives that justified the risks of human spaceflight, said David Mindell and his colleagues in a report published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

“We define exploration as an expansion of the realm of human experience — that is, bringing people into new places, situations and environments, and expanding and redefining what it means to be human,” they observed.

The problem is money. In America’s all-out effort to beat the Soviet Union and be the first to land humans on the moon, funding for NASA touched four per cent of all federal government spending in the mid-1960s. That proportion has now dwindled to less than one per cent and the space agency’s budget has remained essentially stagnant in recent years. This despite the ambitious programme announced by President George W. Bush five years back of returning humans to the moon by 2020 and then going on to Mars.

The Augustine committee has bluntly pointed out that there was little chance of NASA doing any of that at the current level of funding. At the very least, the space agency needed three billion dollars more annually.

Even then, Mars could only be a long-term destination for human exploration. Meanwhile, humans could go to the moon and in stages learn to operate at growing distances from earth.

Model for future

Both the Augustine committee and the MIT researchers were at pains to stress that such exploration was best carried out by involving other countries in the effort. The model for the future should not be America’s Cold War space race with the Soviet Union but the ongoing effort by 16 nations to build the gigantic International Space Station.

“Human spaceflight is sufficiently difficult and expensive that international collaboration may be the only way to accomplish certain goals,” said the MIT group in their report. “International collaborations in human spaceflight have not always reduced costs for the United States, and have sometimes increased them, but such partnerships may well be justified on their foreign policy goals or technology benefits, more than for cost savings. ”

The Augustine committee too agreed that joining hands with other countries was the way to go. Space exploration was now a global enterprise and the combined budgets of America’s principal partners were already comparable to NASA’s own.

“If the United States is willing to lead a global programme of exploration, sharing both the burden and benefit of space exploration in a meaningful way, significant accomplishments could follow. Actively engaging international partners in a manner adapted to today’s multi-polar world could strengthen geopolitical relationships, leverage global financial and technical resources, and enhance the exploration enterprise,” it added.

Both reports favoured including China and India in future partnerships for manned space exploration.

China offered “significant potential” in a space partnership, noted the NASA review committee. It had become the third nation capable of sending humans into space, with a suitable human-rated spacecraft and rocket system. Last year it demonstrated the ability to carry out a space-walk. Indeed, the U.S. had carried out some preliminary discussions with China on joint space activities.

The U.S. and India had already begun cooperative activities in space, with the Chandrayaan-1 carrying American instruments onboard. Moreover, India had announced plans to launch its own astronauts, the committee noted.

The MIT group believes that India offers even greater opportunities than China for supporting United States’ primary objectives in spaceflight. “NASA should actively engage the Indian Space Research Organisation to develop possibilities for a sustainable partnership in human spaceflight in the 2015 to 2025 time frame, particularly if India chooses to embark on human lunar missions in the post-2020 time frame,” their report states.

A NASA-appointed committee and MIT academics favour including China and India in future U.S. partnerships for manned space exploration.

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