Examining the Vision
A group of scientists, engineers, astronauts and policy analysts ponders the president's "New Vision for Space Exploration"
This split between the science and human space-flight communities has undermined political support for the vision and provided a weapon to those opposed to funding human space flight at all. The goal of returning people to the Moon has failed to spark much public interest, and the administration's rationale "to bring the Moon into our economic sphere" has inspired few.
Furthermore, with reduced funding for both science and exploration, questions have emerged about how NASA has decided to implement the vision—about building a new Ares launch vehicle instead of using the existing Atlas and Delta rockets, about the cancellation of work on a Mars sample-return mission and about the approach being taken to international cooperation in space, to name a few of the issues. But the biggest question of all was how to sustain the vision and the commitment to human space flight beyond Earth orbit when a new administration takes office in January 2009.
Almost certainly, high among the coming administration's priorities will be a renewed emphasis on using satellites to help Earth scientists observe and understand various forms of global change. As important as this work is, the Earth-science program has little need for (or influence on) human space flight.
For all of these reasons, especially that of looking ahead to a new administration, the Planetary Society and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University decided to organize a two-day workshop last February to examine the vision and the balance between science and exploration in the nation's future space programs. We assembled some 50 experts with various backgrounds and experience in space exploration to comment on U.S. space policy. In the group were eight former astronauts. Bringing them along with scientists, engineers, policy analysts and industry executives into a single conversation was our goal.
The topics discussed included scientific investigations of extraterrestrial bodies, Earth science and climate change, the planned lunar missions, eventually sending humans to Mars, alternative destinations for astronauts to explore, using people or robots in outer space, vehicles for accessing low-Earth orbit and beyond, emerging entrepreneurial activity, and international collaboration.
One of the great surprises to the organizers of the workshop (the two of us, former astronaut, now University of Virginia professor, Kathy Thornton and former NASA Associate Administrator Wesley T. Huntress, Jr.) was that this diverse group was able to reach consensus on several important points.
We found general agreement with the notion that human space exploration is undertaken to serve national and international interests and that it provides important opportunities to advance science—but that science is not the primary motivation. Participants were also mostly of the opinion that human exploration requires enhanced international collaboration and that the undertaking offers the United States an opportunity for global leadership. The participants agreed that the purpose of sustained human presence in space is to go to Mars and beyond and that the significance of the Moon and other intermediate destinations is to serve as stepping-stones along that path.
The people we brought together at the workshop also noted that NASA has not received the budget increases needed to support the mandated human exploration program as well as other essential parts of the agency's portfolio—including space science, aeronautics, technology development and especially Earth observations, which are vital given the urgent concerns about global climate change.
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