WASHINGTON — A day after the White House called for a blue-ribbon panel to take a fresh look at the U.S. human spaceflight program, two panels of experts gathered here to ponder whether manned missions are worth continuing – and if they are, under what criteria should they proceed.

The answer, according to one panelist: “What was the question?”

Scott Pace, the director of
‘s Space Policy Institute and the former associate administrator for program analysis and evaluation at NASA, was merely being half-facetious.

Policymakers and agencies should have the necessary debates – asking the right questions, and reaching the best possible conclusions, Pace said during the May 8 discussion held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Space, Policy, and Society research group.

If the rationales for human spaceflight put forth by panelists – national security, science, international relations, national prestige, exploration – are to carry the day, Pace said, they ultimately have to pass muster as “acceptable reasons.”

Determining when the tradeoff of risking human lives to accomplish space missions is justifiable then settles into a debate about the acceptability of those reasons. Once that consensus is reached, panelists said the goals of human spaceflight missions have to be incorporated into policy.

“How do we outline priorities? If we really believe [those] primary objectives are the reason to have human space flight, what are the policy implications? What kind of space program will we have?” said Scott Uebelhart, an MIT post-doctoral associate. “Will the space shuttle meet primary objective criteria? These are value judgments people are going to have to make.”

If, for example, the primary policy justification for human space flight is to study energy or climate change, Uebelhart said, the international space station (ISS) is “clearly a fantastic laboratory, or it could be.”

But some of those missions “don’t absolutely require the presence of humans,” Uebelhart said. “Do we develop the ISS [international space station] for that expressed purpose?”

While some say the station should remain in service well beyond 2016 when NASA’s formal commitment runs out in, others say it should be shut down immediately at that point.

Pace said if the ISS remains capable of supporting worthwhile science for a reasonable price, then maybe it makes sense to keep it in service.

“If not?
Hmm,” Pace said. “You cannot answer the question now. You have to run the experiment, complete the space station. You want to run the ISS as a national laboratory with a whole bunch of other people.”

The final decision should be based on facts and informed data, Pace said.

Such assessments and determination would be well served if carried out by some external review group, Pace said.

Panelist Jeffrey Hoffman, a former shuttle astronaut who now is an aeronautics engineering professor at MIT, suggested that future human spaceflight plans should center on more interactivity with robots. Future Moon missions, for example, would be made practical if astronauts were to conduct “short sortie missions” to set up robotic exploration infrastructures on the lunar surface.

“With humans present on the spot, risky activities could be performed at far less risk and probably less expensively,” Hoffman said.

Ultimately, Hoffman said, there are things a robot cannot do.

“The first question I always get asked is, what’s it like in space?” Hoffman said. “You cannot ask that question of a robot.”

John Logsdon, who held Pace’s position at the Space Policy Institute before accepting a fellowship with the National Air and
, expressed both hope and belief that human spaceflight missions will continue under U.S. President Barack Obama.

“The new administration is being handed a large, open-ended program to go to the Moon, Mars, and beyond,” Logsdon said. The White House hopes, he said, to make the program its own and “not Mr. Bush’s or Dr. [Mike]
‘s,” referring, to the previous president and NASA administrator.

Programs like the ISS will continue, Logsdon said, but that alone is not enough. “I think it’s time to get some new experiences so people can talk about it,” Logsdon said.

Citing former President John F. Kennedy’s “Don’t start if you’re not going to finish” admonition, Logsdon said, “Political leadership on a bipartisan basis has been rather willing for the past 30 years to provide a meaningful – maybe not adequate – budget for human space flight. But let’s do take Kennedy’s advice. At some point, the program has to stabilize because it’s worth doing.”

Logsdon expressed hope that the 10-member panel chartered by the White House and led by former Lockheed Martin chief executive Norm Augustine would produce useful recommendations.

“Let’s hope that Mr. Augustine and his panel come back with something [that the administration] can embrace for the next four or eight years,” Logsdon said.