The American Astronomical Society (AAS) released a statement July 11 urging NASA to make scientific research its top priority for space exploration.

“Science is exploration, whether it involves directly sampling the surface of Mars, or gathering in the faint and ancient light of distant galaxies,” the statement said. “Exploration without science is tourism.”

The statement emphasizes the need to study what lies beyond Earth’s galaxy, as well as the benefits new technology and scientific research bring to the space program.

In an interview, AAS President Robert Kirshner said the society wanted to tell NASA publicly that it hopes scientific inquiry and Mars and Moon exploration can both be goals, rather than opposing priorities, as the space program moves forward.

Kirshner said he has been encouraged by the remarks NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has made in this direction, though he is concerned budget decisions may not reflect this attitude.

NASA spokesman Dean Acosta said the agency’s vision is grounded in scientific research, and that Griffin has stated this publicly.

“The administrator has certainly said NASA is committed to science and will continue to be committed to science,” said Acosta. “Our focus today, though, is on a safe return to flight.”

The statement comes the same week as the Space Shuttle Discovery’s scheduled launch, though Kirshner said the timing was coincidental and AAS had hoped to release its statement earlier.

Kirshner said AAS is concerned NASA officials may not take into account the opinion and feedback of the scientific community as they try to move forward with the vision as briskly as possible.

“I don’t want to whine and say, ‘What about us?’” Kirshner said. “But on the other hand, there is a little bit of a sense they are charging ahead, and they, at least for the moment, have suspended their usual methods of consultation.”

Acosta said these worries aren’t justified.

“Mike [Griffin] has gone on record and actually said that the science community should be part of any decisions we make moving forward,” Acosta said. “The key is the science community needs to come to an agreement on the path they see for NASA, and that hasn’t always been the case.”