Should Mars be Human Space Flight Objective?

Jim Whitehead ejw at
Fri Oct 24 17:03:27 PDT 2003
See lots of good links at the bottom of the online version of the article.

It's interesting to me that the main reason to finish the ISS now, as stated
in the article below, is to "keep our word" and "maintain existing
agreements withour partners". IMO, these reasons don't seem to be sufficient
to justify several billion dollars of funding a year. OTOH, this may be
exactly what pro-Mars exploration advocates want you to think, since the
article also clearly lays out that space funding is a zero-sum game for the
immediate future.

- Jim

AIP FYI #136: Should Mars be Human Space Flight Objective?

 "The whole point of leaving home is, after all, to go somewhere, not to
endlessly circle the block." - Wesley Huntress, Carnegie Institution

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 from.

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 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

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 benefits."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
The American Institute of Physics
fyi at
(301) 209-3094

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