Text Size

Troutman Talks Challenges of Human Space Exploration
Patrick Troutman is thinking ahead — way ahead.

Someday, he says, Earth will become uninhabitable. Whether it'll be the fault of humans, an asteroid or a dying sun he doesn't know.

What he does know is that we should already be doing something about it.

Patrick Troutman

Click to enlarge

Patrick Troutman, a senior systems engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, spoke Jan. 16 for the final installment of the National Institute of Aerospace's 10th anniversary lecture series. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

"Eventually we're going to have to get off this planet," he said. "If you ever want 'Star Trek' to become a reality, you've got to start thinking about it now. You've got to start taking risks."

Troutman, a senior systems engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center, was the speaker Jan. 17 for the conclusion of the National Institute of Aerospace's 10th anniversary lecture series.

His talk focused on the last decade or so of human space exploration mission design and some of the challenges NASA faces moving forward.

At the outset, Troutman identified four core conflicts NASA has faced:
  • Using large heavy-lift rockets vs. expendable-launch vehicles
  • Going to Mars vs. the Moon
  • Making a low initial investment and using old technology vs. investing in new technology and having sustained exploration
  • Continuing to use the International Space Station (ISS) vs. moving on to the next destination

Troutman then turned back to the NASA Exploration Team (NeXT), a group formed in 2001. Their work was mostly hush-hush, behind-closed-door stuff.

"We were looking at what the future could be," said Troutman, "because NASA at that time didn't have any mission beyond the space station."

NeXT spent a couple of years looking at how it might be possible to step out from low Earth orbit. They discussed targeted sorties to the Moon and ways to gradually step out into deep space from there. They even talked about sending people to Jupiter's moons.

Those ideas didn't pan out. Neither did an idea from 2003 that would've involved sending astronauts on a flyby of the red planet.

"It turned out it didn't look too attractive," Troutman said. "We'd get about 30 seconds where they could look out the window and see Mars big and everything, then they'd just be twiddling their thumbs on the way out — huge cost for very little return."

Then President Bush rolled out his Vision for Space Exploration, which shifted the focus back from Mars to the Moon.

So NASA started making plans to go to the Moon, plans that included the Constellation program. But there were problems. The Moon outpost that engineers developed would've required a high flight rate — something that wasn't even possible with the launch system that had been developed.

"It wasn't all that affordable given that we couldn't even afford the launch system to begin with," Troutman said.

Then, with NASA's help, a group called the Augustine Commission proposed some of their own ideas for human space exploration, including a Mars-first concept and a Moon-first concept, neither of which were affordable because there wasn't a robust enough budget for the transportation system.

The Commission also proposed something called a "flexible path."

"It means we're going to do something, we're going to invest in something, and when we're ready we'll go somewhere," Troutman said. "That just sets your blood boiling, the passion in that statement."

There were more ideas, including an international consortium that would've established a presence on the Moon. Then President Obama submitted his 2011 budget, which didn't include Constellation or another trip to the Moon.

However, Troutman noted, other than eliminating a destination and a timeline, President Obama's plan was still very similar to the Vision for Space Exploration.

But that didn't last long, because President Obama then gave a speech where he announced a plan to go to an asteroid by 2025.

"It wasn't anywhere in the law or the budget," Troutman said, "but that became our direction."

So a group called the Human Exploration Framework Team (HEFT) started looking at ways to establish a human presence in space, but money again became a problem and HEFT's plans dissolved.

Today, NASA is working within the Capability Driven Framework, a plan that's split up into four decades.

Right now, Troutman says, the focus is squarely on what can be done in the first decade — particularly with the use of the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

"If it's SLS and MPCV, we have busted our heads in the past year and a half figuring out how to make them work, how to close them, how to make them better, and giving them something meaningful to do," he said.

And while they're not capable of leaving cislunar space, Troutman doesn't see that as a bad thing. In fact, he's positive about it.

"It's not a bad place," he said, pointing out that it will give humans a foothold on the path to deep space.

Still, as someone who not only dreams of humans finding a home beyond Earth, but also sees it as a necessity, Troutman did feel compelled to close out his lecture with some observations about the current state of space exploration mission design.

He believes that in order to establish a human presence on Mars it's absolutely necessary to use heavy-lift rockets. He also notes that NASA is in its third cycle of designing a heavy-lift rocket, realizing it's not really affordable, and going back to square one.

And then there was the final bullet on his last slide.

"Insanity," it said, "is defined as repeating the same behavior repeatedly and expecting a different outcome."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman