The House Science Committee had one of its periodic hearings discussing the future of human space flight. The panel included three older men whose experience dates back from the #Apollo era, including Apollo 17 moonwalker Harrison Schmitt, and one woman who was an employee of NASA under the Obama era whose role seemed to be to defend Earth science funding. The hearings got a lot of media criticism because of the age of the participants and the lack of commercial space people on the panel. However, Schmitt’s vision for a return to the moon, with an eye on going to Mars, had some interesting insights from the Apollo era while at the same time looking forward to commercial partnerships.
Schmitt suggested that two elements exist to conducting a deep space exploration program. The first item, obviously, was adequate funding. He proposed a $20 billion human spaceflight budget, roughly double the current spending level. He also suggested that NASA be given flexibility to “hire, fire, and reassign employees to maintain the youth and vigor of the program.” Schmitt that one of the secrets to Apollo’s success was that the average age of the workforce at NASA and its contractor base remained under 30. “Youth provides the motivation, stamina, patriotism, courage and sense of liberty to see projects to successful conclusions.” One of the criticisms of NASA is that is workforce is too old and too cautious.
The initial return to the moon would imply a return to the Apollo/Constellation model, with a revival of the Altair lunar lander. Many space policy analysts suggest that a better approach would be to conduct a “commercial crew” style competition to develop lunar landers from the private sector. Combined with the Orion/Space Launch System, would provide a path back to the moon.
Schmitt did suggest bringing in the commercial sector as partners after the initial lunar landings. His timeline includes a lunar settlement that would be funded by “public/private capital funding” by 2030 and lunar resource utilization entirely with “private capital funding and management.” For those whose gaze is fixed on Mars, Schmitt suggests and fusion rocket that is also developed with a public/private partnership.
Will something like Schmitt’s vision become the basis of a renewed push beyond low Earth orbit? The increased funding may be hard to sell, and many would prefer an earlier commercial partnership. But the old Apollo moonwalker’s ideas are worthy of consideration.