Should Mars be Human Space Flight Objective?

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Publication date: 
24 October 2003

"The whole point of leaving home is, after all, to go somewhere, not to endlessly circle the block." - Wesley Huntress, Carnegie Institution

An October 16 hearing on the future of NASA's human space flight program revealed areas of consensus, and areas of disagreement, among the witnesses on directions for the U.S. space flight program. The panel of witnesses at this House Science Committee hearing brought a tremendous depth of expertise covering manned and unmanned space science and exploration, military technology, and the history of technology. Several were former NASA officials. While the witnesses saw little value in the current space shuttle and space station programs, there was not a clear consensus on what NASA's goals for its human space flight program should be. Although they believed a more ambitious program of exploration could be done without a massive increase to the NASA budget, the witnesses did not fully agree on whether more funding was needed and where it should come from.

The panel concurred with Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert's (R-NY) statement that NASA's current manned space flight program is "not moving us toward any compelling objective" and the nation "should transition out of" the shuttle and space station programs as soon as possible. "Three decades of wishful thinking and building...on an inadequate funding basis has led the nation into a dead end, a blind alley," stated Wesley Huntress of the Carnegie Institution. "There is no point in the long run in doing what we're doing now," added Bruce Murray of the California Institute of Technology. Huntress and Murray, along with In-Q-Tel President Michael Griffin, recommended that the long-term goal of the human space flight program be sending humans to Mars and beyond, for a broader human presence throughout the solar system. The other witnesses were less certain of this objective. "It's hard to see what the payoff of exploration is," remarked Duke University's Alex Roland. Matthew Koss of the College of the Holy Cross worried that emphasis on such an ambitious undertaking might damage NASA's current science programs. "NASA right now has a vibrant program in materials physics" and other scientific fields, he said, and "I'd hate to see [an exploration initiative] injure or destroy the physical science going on right now."

Boehlert commended the prioritization of NASA's budget set in 1990 by the Augustine Commission: space science, Earth science, technology development, a heavy lift launch vehicle, and then human space exploration. While several of the witnesses supported space science as the highest priority, Griffin put human space flight at the top of his list, testifying that he believed it is, "in the long run, possibly the most significant activity in which our nation is engaged." He added that "technology development not tied to specific wasted money." Roland countered that the development of new launch vehicles "is more important than all the others combined," because until launch capability is improved, for "anything we want to do in space...we pay a penalty at the beginning of every mission."

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), Ranking Member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, warned the panel that, "whether you like it or not, we're not going to have a significant increase in the budget." When Space Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) challenged the witnesses on whether they would agree to an exploration initiative if the funding came from U.S. university research programs, most declined to support it on those terms. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) expressed dismay over "the optimism I see," saying that a Mars mission would be a "very long, very expensive, very difficult journey." He added that it would be difficult to gain support, even within the scientific community, where many would argue that they could do more valuable research with the same funds. The witnesses, however, agreed that an exploration mission could be conducted within NASA's current budget or with a minimal increase that was sustained over time. Griffin, Huntress and Murray all advocated a flexible, progressive program with a series of short-term, incremental milestones to be accomplished along the way, although they disagreed about whether a lunar base would be an appropriate intermediate objective.

There was consensus that the current human space flight program should be redirected toward other goals, but also concern about maintaining the nation's commitments to its international space station partners. "I believe there is value in the U.S. keeping its word," said Griffin. Huntress outlined "two choices" if funding increases were not forthcoming: either "reengineer what we're doing now" and give up commitments to the foreign partners, or continue on the current path, complete the space station - "which, to honor our international commitments, I think we really must do" - and start to plan for an exploration initiative after the station's completion.

When Rep. Phil Gingery (R-GA) asked whether anything had been learned from the space station, Huntress, who was formerly the NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science, replied that its "utility is rather singular." The "real value of the space station," he said, is for learning how humans live and work in space. But Roland argued that, even if the nation decides on a mission to Mars, the greatest priority should be on getting to low earth orbit more efficiently, rather than human physiology experiments. Because of the risks of flying the shuttle, he said, "human space flight should be suspended," or curtailed, at least for the near term.

Regarding the use of automated versus manned spacecraft, Koss testified that "the vast majority of physical science experiments" on the station and shuttle "simply do not require on-board human intervention," and could be done more cheaply and efficiently on free-flying platforms. Griffin noted that the type of spacecraft "depends on the kind of question you're trying to answer."

"I lose track of what the purpose of a Mars mission should be," remarked Roland. "If it's just exploration, we should send robots. Murray responded that "the purpose of sending humans to Mars is not to do science, and it never should be." It is, he said, to "find out if humans can operative effectively" in space, and prepare for "what the future might hold." Griffin declared that exploration "is part of what we are as human beings." His written statement quoted Carl Sagan's proposition that the human drive to explore may be "a form of insurance against a local catastrophe" and that space exploration is the "next step in protecting the human species from...catastrophes on a planetary scale."

Although not all supported a major new mission to establish outposts on Mars and throughout the solar system, all five witnesses agreed with Boehlert's summation that "the primary reason for human exploration is the impulse to explore, rather than a more utilitarian goal that you can quantify or measure immediately, although there can be collateral benefits."

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