Examining the Vision
A group of scientists, engineers, astronauts and policy analysts ponders the president's "New Vision for Space Exploration"
Mars or Bust
Finding out that advocates of the nation's space program consider it to be underfunded was not much of a surprise. But this was nevertheless a key conclusion to come from the workshop, and to the general public this appraisal may not have been obvious. The redirection of science funds to pay old bills from the shuttle program and for emergency allocations required for NASA facilities affected by hurricanes has been undermining the vision.
Statements at the workshop about the importance of going to Mars and of international cooperation as a rationale for human space exploration are also very important. We believe that moves in these directions would substantially increase and sustain popular support for the space program. We also believe they would enable the next administration to justify spending money on space exploration and to ensure that it will truly be carried out for the benefit of all humankind.
Why would such redirection help? Mars is a place with an atmosphere and water, where life could have formed and where ultimately it will be determined whether we become a multi-planet species. It is an obvious target for exploration in the popular imagination and has already been visited by robots, generating much public enthusiasm. For scientists, inquiry into the origin and evolution of life compels the further exploration of Mars. The Moon is a stepping-stone for nations that are just now becoming space faring and for the United States and Russia, which have to renew their capabilities to explore beyond Earth orbit. It can also serve as a good waypoint for an emerging cadre of space entrepreneurs. But as a human destination, this dead world is a dead end.
There might be other stepping-stones, too. In a 1994 study, the International Academy of Astronautics emphasized the value of the stable "L" (Lagrangian) points in the Earth-Sun system, the near-Earth asteroids and the Martian moon Phobos. Missions to these places offer interesting and potentially valuable rewards in their own right, in addition to advancing the capability for sending astronauts on long interplanetary voyages. But their greatest value could be to supply what is missing in the current human space-exploration plan—publicly engaging milestones on the road to Mars.
The workshop attendees emphasized that human space exploration serves overarching national and international interests. Some believe this means positioning ourselves for a new space race with China, but a greater triumph would come from international cooperation. The International Space Station provides a basis for a future in which many nations work together to reach the Moon and Mars. Such collaboration would be the most direct way to attain greater financial and technical resources, as well as domestic political support, for the grand adventure of human exploration of other worlds.
We believe that thoughtful discussions, such as the ones that went on during our workshop, can make the space program more relevant and more engaging to the public. And only with popular backing can we sustain a healthy space program, not just over the next presidential administration, but perhaps over the next century.