little more than a month ago, U.S. President George W. Bush signed an
Omnibus Appropriations Bill
restricting NASA from using budgeted funds on “any research, development, or demonstration activities related exclusively to human exploration of Mars.” Furthermore, while the bill provides additional support for science missions – including exploration of Mars – it fails to adequately fund NASA’s plans to return to the Moon and then send humans to Mars.
You might think that you would hear an uproar in the space community about that language, but except for the efforts of the Mars Society and the National Space Society, this was far from the case. Since the signing of the
omnibus appropriation, many of the statements that I have heard within the space community have been:
“; “It won’t have much of an impact in 2008.
“; and “Why worry about something that is so far in the future?”
It is true that this restriction
probably will have a marginal impact on the program in 2008, but the people who argue that it is not worth fighting are quite wrong. This small addition to the budget obscures the
and could have a major long-term impact. In the end, the anti-Mars text is nothing more than an effort to start reigning in the goals of the U.S. Space Exploration Policy, known best as the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE).
If you disagree
, then ask yourself why
this restriction was placed in the budget in the first place? There would be some level of justification for this language if it was designed as a cost-saving tool for the
2008 budget. As with the unsuccessful amendment that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) tried to add to the
2007 budget, it does not call for any reduction in NASA’s 2008 budget. It is purely political – and opponents of human space exploration have won a significant victory.
Because this language is now the status quo, it
almost certainly will appear on the House version of the
2009 budget. It
much more difficult to
this restriction now than it was in
2008, and it will get increasingly difficult each succeeding year. The longer the language remains on the budget, the more the program will become exclusively focused on the Moon – and this may not be the last limitation on the program. If we hand the anti-space proponents more easy victories, it is highly likely that they will continue to shift the status quo next year and the year after that. Soon, not only Mars exploration will be threatened, but other goals as well.
I am certainly not advocating that the space community blindly
for VSE. There is no question that the
vision has some serious flaws – and has had flaws from the beginning – but complete abandonment of the program would be a tremendous miscalculation. If we don’t at least show strong support for the VSE goals
while suggesting improvements
– how can
we really expect our elected officials to propose a better program?
Three of the leading presidential candidates
are members of the U.
Senate. Although candidates holding elective posts are legally required to keep their campaign organizations and their office operations separate, one would suspect that
Sens. BarackObama (D-Ill.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.)
and John McCain (R-Ariz.) do pay attention to what is going on in their senatorial offices
. They may just notice if support for certain parts of the space program looks weak.
Let’s put this even further into the context of the campaign. Two candidates, Sens. Clinton and Obama, have released official space policies. Neither of those policies mention the Moon or Mars. While they don’t dismiss the possibility of human space exploration beyond the international space station, they are obviously not committing themselves to any long-term space goals yet. Sen. Obama
delaying the Moon and Mars by five years to pay for his education initiative.
He won’t feel terribly compelled to change his mind if the space community throws up its arms and surrenders for the next year or two.
Ultimately, Mars is one of the key underpinnings of the entire human space program. As such, the
omnibus text is a much broader attack than just a one-year restriction. Mars is central to sustaining human space exploration; it provides momentum for the whole program.
As long as humans to Mars remains one of the primary parts of NASA’s plans, all of the earlier hardware and destinations are in a much safer position.
Regardless of how lethargic the current program seems, we need to play this like a chess match. Our opponents are playing for goals that are several moves ahead of where we are right now, and we need to counter those moves. This isn’t about the narrow vision of one advocacy organization. This is about having a broader view of what the long-term ramifications of this restriction could be.
With the apparent decline of
U.S. science education, stiffer technological competition from other nations, and new enticing discoveries in space being made every day, this is not the time to allow America’s human space program to be whittled away. Now is the time to accelerate and reinvigorate this program.
Our friends in Congress and the space advocacy community need to make sure not only that the restrictive language does not make it
into the final
2009 NASA budget, but that NASA receives adequate funds to achieve these goals as quickly and efficiently as possible. By doing so, we will be serving the taxpayers far more than by under
funding this effort, dragging it out over decades, and perhaps only achieving modest results.
After all, we will not begin true human exploration of space if we allow Congress and others to restrict our
Chris Carberry is political director of the Mars Society.