Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

It Is Rocket Science

By Simon Grose

Obama boosts space exploration beyond the Moon to Mars.

A few months after Barack Obama became America’s 44th President, a US commentator noted that it was a welcome change to “have a grown-up in charge”.

Change is what Obama promised. The hard-won reform of America’s health care system that crunched through Congress a year after he took office is the headline example so far.

Reforming America’s space exploration program did not arouse the fierce ideological conflict that engulfed the health debate. Nevertheless, reforms Obama announced in mid-April at the Kennedy Space Centre involve a fundamental shift in emphasis that angered many, not least Neil Armstrong, the first moonwalker.

George W. Bush’s goal of putting American people back on the Moon by 2020 is off the agenda. Obama is looking longer into the future and further into the solar system. While he said that “nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space than I am," he added that "we've got to do it in a smart way".

This is a ultimately a call for scientific and technological innovation. While nowhere near as populist as having people bouncing around the Moon with the Stars and Stripes on their helmets, it is informed by measured judgement and augurs well for the holders of niche space expertise like Australia.

By 2015 Obama charged NASA with developing a new heavy-lift rocket and a new generation space shuttle by 2025 to take humans beyond the Moon’s orbit to an asteroid. By 2035 he expects that this system will be capable of sending humans to fly around Mars and return, “and a landing on Mars will follow”.

The key to success is travelling faster and using less energy per tonne and per kilometre. A round trip to Mars would take more than a year with current technologies, requiring prohibitive payloads of food, water and other basic support systems for a minimum crew of two who would face demanding psychological challenges.

With this in mind he stressed the need for “breakthrough propulsion systems and other advanced technologies”. Ion thruster engines, which deliver small but sustained thrust to enable a spacecraft to continually accelerate in frictionless space, are one such technology. Researchers at the Australian National University have been working on ion thrusters for years, and will be pleased by this new emphasis from the world’s leading space explorer, as will other Australian research groups and companies who were involved in the FedSat project.

Australia’s Space Industry Council, which held its first meeting in February, is thus a timely development. Our space science sector has a long been a supplicant and malnourished orphan in its own land. It now has new reason for hope thanks to the adult in the White House.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (