Science Committee Reviews Pathways to Mars and the Future of Human Space Exploration Report

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Publication date: 
11 July 2014

Members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing on June 25 to discuss a National Academies of Science report on Pathways to U.S. Human Space Exploration.  The report, required by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, is intended to review future options of human spaceflight.  Jonathan Lunine, Professor in the Physical Sciences and Director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell University and Governor Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University were co-chairs of the committee producing the report and testified at the hearing. 

“The first human footsteps on the Moon are a distant memory…. There is a sense that America is falling behind, with our best days behind us.  Today, America’s finest spaceships and largest rockets are found in museums rather than on launch pads,” stated Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) in opening the hearing.  He discussed human spaceflight and noted that the President’s proposal of capturing an asteroid was “not considered to be a serious proposal” according to a NASA advisor.  Smith mentioned that former NASA officials have called the plan into question and criticized the Asteroid Retrieval Mission for lacking a destination and a certain launch date. 

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) hoped to avoid a “business as usual” approach to human space exploration because the report “makes clear that ‘business-as-usual’ is not a sustainable approach.”   She continued “the National Academies panel makes clear that we don’t have unlimited time to decide what kind of human space exploration program we want for the nation.  It may be tempting for some to say that we shouldn’t invest the necessary resources in space exploration until we first ‘fix’ Medicare, eliminate the deficit, or address a host of other major policy issues that have been identified by Members at various times.  It’s tempting to use those issues as an excuse for inaction, but the National Academies makes a compelling case that we don’t have that luxury if we want to maintain a meaningful human space exploration capability in this nation.”

Daniels noted the daunting challenge to get humans to the surface of Mars as he described the National Research Council’s pathways approach.  Such a scenario would involve a “predefined set of chosen destinations and milestones” which would “generate technical and engineering requirements which, as much as possible would feed towards the next step and eventually the horizon goal.”  He outlined that work needs to begin soon on mission-critical elements which include Mars entry, descent and landing, in-space propulsion and power, and radiation safety.  Daniels discussed the need for expanded partnerships between the U.S. and other space faring nations, including China, emphasizing that all players whether public or private need to change their longstanding expectations in order to achieve the goal of reaching Mars. 

Lunine urged policymakers to focus on the first chapter of the report.  He highlighted the role of policymakers in space decisions stating, “if a decision to continue a U.S. human space exploration program were to be based simply on the interests and priorities expressed in public opinion polls taken over the past few decades, it is likely we would not have gone to space. If the decision were based simply on the available data on proven benefits that uniquely accrue from a human space exploration, then we would likely not go. However, while the committee felt it was important to examine as closely as possible both public opinion and the historic rationales—and in fact it was charged to do so—we were also aware that such data have numerous limitations and interpretations. We also recognized that by these kinds of criteria alone, we would never have stepped foot on the Moon, yet that achievement is now viewed as a source of inspiration and great pride by Americans.”

Lunine outlined three requirements necessary for a Mars mission: steadfast national commitment to consensus goals, international collaboration, and a budget that increases more than the rate of inflation.  Throughout his testimony he emphasized the critical role of political leadership in space-related decisions stating that elected leaders are the “critical enablers of our nation’s investment in human spaceflight.”

Questions from Smith focused on “persistent patterns” of the Administration that, in his view show a lack of support for human spaceflight.  Daniels responded that the “persistent pattern” could also be seen prior to this Administration.  Smith also asked witnesses to compare the plan of the Asteroid Retrieval Mission with a return to the moon.  Lunine responded by noting that the Asteroid Retrieval Mission has effectively the smallest number of “stepping stones” but emphasized the technical leaps that this approach would require.

Ranking Member Johnson asked witnesses to comment on the report noting the financial bind that space exploration faces in this tight fiscal climate.   Daniels noted that space exploration is a bipartisan issue and he hoped the report lays out preconditions for successful programs.  Lunine emphasized the diversity of the committee charged with producing the report, stating that they were able to reach a consensus on human space exploration objectives.