An October 16 hearing on the future of NASA's human space flight program
revealed areas of consensus, and areas of disagreement, among the witnesses
on directions for the U.S. space flight program. The panel of witnesses
at this House Science Committee hearing brought a tremendous depth of
expertise covering manned and unmanned space science and exploration,
military technology, and the history of technology. Several were former
NASA officials. While the witnesses saw little value in the current
space shuttle and space station programs, there was not a clear consensus
on what NASA's goals for its human space flight program should be. Although
they believed a more ambitious program of exploration could be done
without a massive increase to the NASA budget, the witnesses did not
fully agree on whether more funding was needed and where it should come
The panel concurred with Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert's (R-NY)
statement that NASA's current manned space flight program is "not
moving us toward any compelling objective" and the nation "should
transition out of" the shuttle and space station programs as soon
as possible. "Three decades of wishful thinking and building...on
an inadequate funding basis has led the nation into a dead end, a blind
alley," stated Wesley Huntress of the Carnegie Institution. "There
is no point in the long run in doing what we're doing now," added
Bruce Murray of the California Institute of Technology. Huntress and
Murray, along with In-Q-Tel President Michael Griffin, recommended that
the long-term goal of the human space flight program be sending humans
to Mars and beyond, for a broader human presence throughout the solar
system. The other witnesses were less certain of this objective. "It's
hard to see what the payoff of exploration is," remarked Duke University's
Alex Roland. Matthew Koss of the College of the Holy Cross worried that
emphasis on such an ambitious undertaking might damage NASA's current
science programs. "NASA right now has a vibrant program in materials
physics" and other scientific fields, he said, and "I'd hate
to see [an exploration initiative] injure or destroy the physical science
going on right now."
Boehlert commended the prioritization of NASA's budget set in 1990
by the Augustine Commission: space science, Earth science, technology
development, a heavy lift launch vehicle, and then human space exploration.
While several of the witnesses supported space science as the highest
priority, Griffin put human space flight at the top of his list, testifying
that he believed it is, "in the long run, possibly the most significant
activity in which our nation is engaged." He added that "technology
development not tied to specific goals...is wasted money." Roland
countered that the development of new launch vehicles "is more
important than all the others combined," because until launch capability
is improved, for "anything we want to do in space...we pay a penalty
at the beginning of every mission."
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), Ranking Member of the Space and Aeronautics
Subcommittee, warned the panel that, "whether you like it or not,
we're not going to have a significant increase in the budget."
When Space Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) challenged
the witnesses on whether they would agree to an exploration initiative
if the funding came from U.S. university research programs, most declined
to support it on those terms. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) expressed dismay
over "the optimism I see," saying that a Mars mission would
be a "very long, very expensive, very difficult journey."
He added that it would be difficult to gain support, even within the
scientific community, where many would argue that they could do more
valuable research with the same funds. The witnesses, however, agreed
that an exploration mission could be conducted within NASA's current
budget or with a minimal increase that was sustained over time. Griffin,
Huntress and Murray all advocated a flexible, progressive program with
a series of short-term, incremental milestones to be accomplished along
the way, although they disagreed about whether a lunar base would be
an appropriate intermediate objective.
There was consensus that the current human space flight program should
be redirected toward other goals, but also concern about maintaining
the nation's commitments to its international space station partners.
"I believe there is value in the U.S. keeping its word," said
Griffin. Huntress outlined "two choices" if funding increases
were not forthcoming: either "reengineer what we're doing now"
and give up commitments to the foreign partners, or continue on the
current path, complete the space station - "which, to honor our
international commitments, I think we really must do" - and start
to plan for an exploration initiative after the station's completion.
When Rep. Phil Gingery (R-GA) asked whether anything had been learned
from the space station, Huntress, who was formerly the NASA Associate
Administrator for Space Science, replied that its "utility is rather
singular." The "real value of the space station," he
said, is for learning how humans live and work in space. But Roland
argued that, even if the nation decides on a mission to Mars, the greatest
priority should be on getting to low earth orbit more efficiently, rather
than human physiology experiments. Because of the risks of flying the
shuttle, he said, "human space flight should be suspended,"
or curtailed, at least for the near term.
Regarding the use of automated versus manned spacecraft, Koss testified
that "the vast majority of physical science experiments" on
the station and shuttle "simply do not require on-board human intervention,"
and could be done more cheaply and efficiently on free-flying platforms.
Griffin noted that the type of spacecraft "depends on the kind
of question you're trying to answer."
"I lose track of what the purpose of a Mars mission should be,"
remarked Roland. "If it's just exploration, we should send robots.
Murray responded that "the purpose of sending humans to Mars is
not to do science, and it never should be." It is, he said, to
"find out if humans can operative effectively" in space, and
prepare for "what the future might hold." Griffin declared
that exploration "is part of what we are as human beings."
His written statement quoted Carl Sagan's proposition that the human
drive to explore may be "a form of insurance against a local catastrophe"
and that space exploration is the "next step in protecting the
human species from...catastrophes on a planetary scale."
Although not all supported a major new mission to establish outposts
on Mars and throughout the solar system, all five witnesses agreed with
Boehlert's summation that "the primary reason for human exploration
is the impulse to explore, rather than a more utilitarian goal that
you can quantify or measure immediately, although there can be collateral