The keys to the success of President Bush's recently announced space
exploration vision "are sustainability and affordability,"
declared Chairman Pete Aldridge at the first meeting of the President's
Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, more
colloquially know as the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond.
Aldridge noted that the initiative was likely to span at least ten presidential
cycles. While most of the speakers before the commission applauded the
President's vision as a much-needed goal for America's space flight
program, former Lockheed Martin Corporation Chairman Norman Augustine
added a dose of skepticism by questioning the proposed budget for the
initiative and remarking that cost estimates were "traditionally
underestimated" for programs of this type.
Other concerns raised during the February 11 day-long discussion included
the initiative's potential impact on space and Earth science and other
NASA programs; the importance of international collaboration and inter-agency
cooperation; the need for sufficient contingency funding; and a perceived
lack of creativity and innovativeness within NASA management. Witnesses
and commission members pondered how to ensure that the initiative receives
high-level, bipartisan support in Congress and across administrations,
how to tap into Americans' interest in space science missions, and how
to make the case for the public benefits of a major space exploration
initiative. Aldridge made it clear at the beginning of the meeting that
the commission's role was to provide recommendations for successful
implementation of the President's vision. "We're not here to challenge
that vision or to modify it," he stated.
In general, the mood was positive; as Cort Durocher of the American
Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics commented, the new initiative
is "certainly more exciting than a NASA without a vision, which
is what we've had for the last few administrations." Raymond Ernst
of the Aerospace Industries Association told the commission that he
believed the President's vision was achievable, affordable, and would
excite a new generation of students to pursue science and engineering,
but he urged that NASA's other programs and missions, particularly Earth
science, be maintained and adequately funded.
President Bush's initiative will provide an opportunity for "a
space program that can endure and that most Americans can be proud of,"
said Augustine. Although the world has changed significantly since he
led a commission on the Future of the U.S. Space Program for the first
President Bush, many of his commission's findings and recommendations
are still applicable today. Augustine remarked that, with other important
national demands on the budget, the "strong grassroots support
for space" has not been "strongly evident in terms of budget
impacts." His commission found NASA "badly overcommitted,"
with a "mismatch between goals and funding" and a lack of
adequate reserves for major programs. It recommended that science -
both Earth and space science - "be the first priority" of
America's space program, that an appropriate balance be maintained between
human and robotic missions, and that space exploration be conducted
on a "go as you pay" basis. After considering alternatives,
his commission decided that a human trip to Mars was the "correct
long-term goal for the American space program," with the Moon as
a "valuable stepping stone along the way."
Asked about the cost estimate for the President's vision, Augustine
doubted that an annual NASA budget of $15 billion sustained over ten
years would be sufficient, even without taking other NASA programs into
consideration. "It would be a grave mistake to undertake a major
new space objective on the cheap," he stated. To avoid budgetary
problems, he advocated a "step-wise" program with a series
of significant milestones and with the date for the final goal "left
Members of the new commission later pointed out that Bush is proposing
a five percent per year increase in the NASA budget in the near-term,
a redistribution of $11 billion within NASA's budget, and cost savings
from the phase-out of the shuttle and space station. Gen. Lester Lyles
(retired) also noted that much useful technology development could be
leveraged from other federal agencies, adding "a whole new dimension"
to the cost issue. But Augustine noted that the Mars initiative proposed
by the first President Bush never came to fruition because presidential
leadership was not sustained across administrations, and NASA budgets
"didn't evolve in the way we thought."
During the same time period that Augustine's commission was contemplating
the future of the space program, retired Gen. Tom Stafford headed a
"Synthesis Group" to look at architectures and make recommendations
for a Mars mission. Like Augustine's, many of his group's suggestions
are still relevant, including establishment of a national program office
to coordinate internationally and across agencies; development of space
nuclear power and nuclear thermal rocket technologies (which Stafford
called "the long pole in the tent" for a human mission to
Mars); focused life science experiments; and a strong emphasis on education
and outreach. Among other recommendations, his group called for crew
safety as the top priority; realistic program costs and milestones with
useful capabilities developed at every step; maximum use of modularity;
and use of humans only when necessary, and warned against "promising
too much to too many."
The commission members were questioned about possible negative impacts
on other NASA programs, and particularly about the decision, currently
under review, to cancel the final Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.
Aldridge stated that while the commission was asked to consider a research
agenda for the space exploration initiative, it was not asked to look
at the initiative's impact on other programs. Four of the nine commission
members are scientists, and several suggested taking the "long
view" rather than just looking at individual programs. Hayden Planetarium
Director Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out that science was explicitly
mentioned in the President's announcement. "This vision is inconceivable
without science," he said, although "the distribution of science
will end up looking different." Laurie Leshin, Director of Arizona
State University's Center for Meteorite Studies added that astronomy
"will be a critical part" of the exploration initiative.
The commission will be seeking public input to inform its recommendations,
and plans to issue a report in four months. Further information on the
commission can be found at http://www.moontomars.org/.
To provide comments, please see http://www.moontomars.org/notices/contact.asp
for information on how to contact the commission.