The keys to the success of President Bush's recently announced space exploration vision "are sustainability and affordability," declared Chairman Pete Aldridge at the first meeting of the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, more colloquially know as the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond. Aldridge noted that the initiative was likely to span at least ten presidential cycles. While most of the speakers before the commission applauded the President's vision as a much-needed goal for America's space flight program, former Lockheed Martin Corporation Chairman Norman Augustine added a dose of skepticism by questioning the proposed budget for the initiative and remarking that cost estimates were "traditionally underestimated" for programs of this type.
Other concerns raised during the February 11 day-long discussion included the initiative's potential impact on space and Earth science and other NASA programs; the importance of international collaboration and inter-agency cooperation; the need for sufficient contingency funding; and a perceived lack of creativity and innovativeness within NASA management. Witnesses and commission members pondered how to ensure that the initiative receives high-level, bipartisan support in Congress and across administrations, how to tap into Americans' interest in space science missions, and how to make the case for the public benefits of a major space exploration initiative. Aldridge made it clear at the beginning of the meeting that the commission's role was to provide recommendations for successful implementation of the President's vision. "We're not here to challenge that vision or to modify it," he stated.
In general, the mood was positive; as Cort Durocher of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics commented, the new initiative is "certainly more exciting than a NASA without a vision, which is what we've had for the last few administrations." Raymond Ernst of the Aerospace Industries Association told the commission that he believed the President's vision was achievable, affordable, and would excite a new generation of students to pursue science and engineering, but he urged that NASA's other programs and missions, particularly Earth science, be maintained and adequately funded.
President Bush's initiative will provide an opportunity for "a space program that can endure and that most Americans can be proud of," said Augustine. Although the world has changed significantly since he led a commission on the Future of the U.S. Space Program for the first President Bush, many of his commission's findings and recommendations are still applicable today. Augustine remarked that, with other important national demands on the budget, the "strong grassroots support for space" has not been "strongly evident in terms of budget impacts." His commission found NASA "badly overcommitted," with a "mismatch between goals and funding" and a lack of adequate reserves for major programs. It recommended that science - both Earth and space science - "be the first priority" of America's space program, that an appropriate balance be maintained between human and robotic missions, and that space exploration be conducted on a "go as you pay" basis. After considering alternatives, his commission decided that a human trip to Mars was the "correct long-term goal for the American space program," with the Moon as a "valuable stepping stone along the way."
Asked about the cost estimate for the President's vision, Augustine doubted that an annual NASA budget of $15 billion sustained over ten years would be sufficient, even without taking other NASA programs into consideration. "It would be a grave mistake to undertake a major new space objective on the cheap," he stated. To avoid budgetary problems, he advocated a "step-wise" program with a series of significant milestones and with the date for the final goal "left open-ended."
Members of the new commission later pointed out that Bush is proposing a five percent per year increase in the NASA budget in the near-term, a redistribution of $11 billion within NASA's budget, and cost savings from the phase-out of the shuttle and space station. Gen. Lester Lyles (retired) also noted that much useful technology development could be leveraged from other federal agencies, adding "a whole new dimension" to the cost issue. But Augustine noted that the Mars initiative proposed by the first President Bush never came to fruition because presidential leadership was not sustained across administrations, and NASA budgets "didn't evolve in the way we thought."
During the same time period that Augustine's commission was contemplating the future of the space program, retired Gen. Tom Stafford headed a "Synthesis Group" to look at architectures and make recommendations for a Mars mission. Like Augustine's, many of his group's suggestions are still relevant, including establishment of a national program office to coordinate internationally and across agencies; development of space nuclear power and nuclear thermal rocket technologies (which Stafford called "the long pole in the tent" for a human mission to Mars); focused life science experiments; and a strong emphasis on education and outreach. Among other recommendations, his group called for crew safety as the top priority; realistic program costs and milestones with useful capabilities developed at every step; maximum use of modularity; and use of humans only when necessary, and warned against "promising too much to too many."
The commission members were questioned about possible negative impacts on other NASA programs, and particularly about the decision, currently under review, to cancel the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission. Aldridge stated that while the commission was asked to consider a research agenda for the space exploration initiative, it was not asked to look at the initiative's impact on other programs. Four of the nine commission members are scientists, and several suggested taking the "long view" rather than just looking at individual programs. Hayden Planetarium Director Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out that science was explicitly mentioned in the President's announcement. "This vision is inconceivable without science," he said, although "the distribution of science will end up looking different." Laurie Leshin, Director of Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies added that astronomy "will be a critical part" of the exploration initiative.
The commission will be seeking public input to inform its recommendations, and plans to issue a report in four months. Further information on the commission can be found at http://www.moontomars.org/. To provide comments, please see http://www.moontomars.org/notices/contact.asp for information on how to contact the commission.