Opinions Differ on Aspects of President's Space Exploration Plan

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Publication date: 
22 April 2004

While many recent NASA hearings have featured Administrator Sean O'Keefe extolling President Bush's new human space exploration initiative, a March 10 House Science Committee hearing gave a panel of non-governmental witnesses an opportunity to share their views on the initiative. Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) opened the hearing by remarking that he remains "undecided" about the President's vision for exploration, and Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) announced that, until he was convinced that the President's plan was credible and responsible, he was "not prepared to give the plan my support." While the panel of witnesses (which included former NASA officials) all supported further human exploration of space, they had varying opinions on aspects of the President's vision. There was disagreement over the value of the space station and the use of the Moon as a stepping stone to Mars, and no consensus on the cost of the initiative. Some felt NASA's prioritization of science was arbitrary, and others argued that the planned retirement of the shuttle was premature. One area on which they agreed was the potential of space exploration to ignite American students' interest in science.

Gordon highlighted some of the science programs that would be cut, delayed, or flat-funded in order to fund the new initiative, including the Sun-Earth Connections program and research into the structure and evolution of the universe. Lennard Fisk, Chairman of the National Academy of Sciences' Space Studies Board, said that the way NASA determined which programs were essential for the exploration initiative and which were not "does not make sense to me," and warned that NASA was setting "science against science."

Both Boehlert and Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) expressed concerns about the fate of the Earth Science program, which Boehlert said was facing "a rather substantial cut," based on NASA's budget projections through FY 2009. Fisk agreed, saying NASA "should not falter" on its responsibility to provide data for policymakers and the public on "how to be good stewards" of the Earth.

Larry Young, MIT Professor and Founding Director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, described the human physiology challenges that need to be overcome for long-duration spaceflight and the essential role of the space station in this research. But In-Q-Tel President Michael Griffin recommended reevaluating the station's usefulness if funding for the exploration initiative is deemed insufficient. Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) questioned planned cutbacks in other space station research and the effect on researchers; Young agreed that the station was needed to conduct fundamental microgravity research in many areas of science. Some of the witnesses challenged NASA's plans to retire the shuttle at the completion of space station assembly, wondering how America would fulfill its obligations to its international partners and continue to conduct research on the station until a Crew Exploration Vehicle was ready.

Several members of the panel also questioned the value of using the Moon as a stopping-point on the way to Mars. Science Fiction Museum Director Donna Shirley called it a "diversion" and said it did not have enough in common with Mars to justify the "vast expenditure." She and Young agreed with Boehlert's statement that once NASA reached the Moon, and "money gets tight, and it inevitably will," further progress might be curtailed. On the other hand, Fisk, Griffin and former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Officer Norman Augustine advocated returning to the Moon; Griffin said it would be valuable for learning to live on another planet and testing technologies for Mars, and he also advocated extracting lunar oxygen as propellant for further space travel.

Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) asked whether, if the initiative's overriding goal was exploration, the potential for new discoveries could be maximized by using robotic missions. The witnesses generally approved of NASA's intent to combine both human and robotic missions. Young said that "choosing missions that can be done robotically [was] like looking for your keys under a streetlight," and Griffin argued that one astronaut could accomplish the same amount in a single day as the Mars rovers could accomplish in 90 days. Ehlers commented, however, that the cost ratio was approximately 1,000 robotic missions to one manned mission. He urged using robots to gather as much information as possible so the use of humans could be optimized.

Questioned about the cost of the initiative, Griffin thought a human trip to Mars could be achieved for approximately the same cost in current dollars as the Apollo program; he estimated a cost of $130 billion to reach Mars and $30 billion to get to the Moon. Asked his opinion, Fisk answered, "I have not a clue; I don't think any of us should." The cost will depend, he said, on the incremental steps chosen along the way. "I'm convinced," Ehlers warned, that it will "cost significantly more" than $130 billion. All witnesses supported the incremental, "go-as-you-pay" approach, and said available funding will dictate how quickly progress is made. The only way to sustain such an initiative over the long term, Fisk said, is to have "in each congressional cycle some visible signs of progress." Ehlers thought that the development of a Crew Exploration Vehicle would be a key early test for congressional support; if NASA was successful within a reasonable cost and schedule, Congress would be more likely to maintain support for continuation of the program.

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