“It's a new Moon,” Popovkin says of his agency's concept for a long-term permanent base. That outpost could take advantage of the water ice at the Moon's poles to continue exploring the lunar surface, he says, and to prepare for the next leap into the Solar System.
The concept, which is roughly the same one NASA pursued under then-President George W. Bush's Constellation program of human exploration development, would require the consensus of the other space-faring nations in the world, Popovkin stresses.
But because the ISS is basically a merger in space of NASA's old Space Station Freedom and Russia's Mir II orbital laboratory project, total consensus is not required to decide how the facilities will be used. Each partner has its own facilities on board, and Russian cosmonauts tend to support Russian scientists in the Russian modules.
Popovkin says his agency is shifting its station-research focus from life sciences work to engineering developments that can support human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. That work will center on the new multipurpose laboratory module Roscosmos hopes to launch to the space station in 2014, he says. Among activities that may be possible is an in-space repeat of the Mars 500 ground simulation of a human mission to Mars, he suggests.
The exploration conference opened a few hours after Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX) launched a Dragon cargo capsule toward its first rendezvous and berthing with the ISS (see p. 35). Just as there was consensus that exploration will require international cooperation, there was consensus that the historic mission marked a “breakthrough” in the way humans reach space, in the words of Berndt Feuerbacher, president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), which co-sponsored the conference.
The president of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the other conference sponsor, is former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who set aside $500 million in NASA's long-term budget for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) seed-money effort that helped fund SpaceX's project. Griffin, a Republican who advises likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney on space policy, noted that his Democratic successors dramatically accelerated the commercial-space push he helped to start into the $500 million-a-year pace.
And while he, too, congratulated SpaceX on its achievement in launching the Dragon capsule, Griffin cautioned that the commercial space sector alone will not address the issues raised at the exploration conference.
“I'd like to back up a bit and remind everybody that commercial, quote unquote, is a procurement mechanism,” Griffin said, stressing that he was speaking only for himself. “We're still talking about procuring goods and services, using public monies, on behalf of the taxpayer to accomplish strategic purposes that our nation's policymakers have decided they want done. There is not yet a viable commercial marketplace . . . . Commercial is a procurement strategy. It is not a space policy.”