In a previous Commentary article entitled “Today’s Youth Key to Sustaining Human Space Exploration for the Long Term ” [Jan. 8, page 19], we reported on the results of a workshop organized by the Center for Aerospace Policy Research at George Mason University. The workshop, which involved students and young professionals as well as space community veterans, addressed issues related to building and maintaining the constituency to support space exploration activities spanning decades.

One critical element of this constituency-development issue, which was not dealt with in the previous article but was discussed at the workshop, is the communication of the pace, breadth and excitement of exploration activities to the public at large. Unfortunately, many space agencies define “exploration” narrowly. Although this stovepiping facilitates efficient and effective program management, it results in “exploration” suffering from a distinct shortage of significant and exciting milestones occurring in the near to medium term.

For example, in the case of NASA, for good and valid program management reasons, space exploration has essentially been defined as those activities managed by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate . However, because they are the responsibility the Space Operations Mission Directorate , shuttle and space station activities are not generally featured as what they are: the first steps in the implementation of the U.S. Vision for Space Exploration. Similarly, many exciting robotic science missions are not touted as exploration because they fall under the purview of the Science Mission Directorate .

With regard to the European Space Agency (ESA), exploration activities are overseen by the Directorate of Human Spaceflight, Microgravity and Exploration Programmes, which is responsible for the Aurora Exploration program and the European contribution to the international space station . However, as with NASA, all other space science missions are the responsibility of ESA’s Science Directorate.

In terms of major exploration milestones, NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate can point to the upcoming launch of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, planned for the fourth quarter of 2008, to be followed, no earlier than September 2014, by the first crewed launch of the Constellation Program’s Orion/Ares 1 vehicle and eventually the first mission returning humans to the Moon.

Due to budget restrictions it is looking highly unlikely that there will be any lunar robotic follow-up missions after LRO and, while the Constellation Program contains many significant development milestones, these are engineering milestones and as such are much more likely to captivate members of the space community than the public at large.

This being said, there are a myriad of exciting activities conducted outside of the stovepipes of exploration program management in both agencies that could be characterized as space exploration for purposes of public consumption. For example, NASA’s rovers continue to operate on the surface of Mars and the agency’s spacecraft in orbit around the planet generate stunning imagery. The Mars Ph oenix Lander is scheduled for launch later this year, and the Mars Science Laboratory in 2009, while other Mars missions also are under study. There are also missions operating in orbit around Saturn (Cassini), en-route to Mercury (Messenger) and Pluto (New Horizons), as well as an asteroid mission (Dawn) scheduled for launch later this year.

ESA’s Aurora program currently contains one approved mission, ExoMars, which is not scheduled to launch until 2011 at the earliest. Whether the agency will undertake further robotic activities at the Moon or Mars has yet to be decided, as has its position as regards human space activities beyond the space stati on . Meanwhile ESA has a mission in operation around Venus (Venus Express), a mission en-route to a land on a comet (Rosetta), and is planning to launch a two-spacecraft mission to study Mercury (BepiColombo) in 2013. ESA also has missions planned that will, among other things, search for extra solar planets. Gaia will launch at the end of 2011, and Darwin at a still to be determined date.

With the right strategic communications approach, these missions could all be categorized as “exploration writ large,” as can every shuttle mission and space station Expedition crew; Hubble Space Telescope operations; the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope; other national space science missions; contributions to other nation’s missions, such as Chandrayaan 1 and Chang’e 1; and private initiatives such as Bigelow Aerospace’s Genesis 2 and Sundancer .

If this full set of activities were to be presented by space agencies as part of their overall efforts to explore space, the public would see a frequent series of fresh exploration milestones. This could generate greater enthusiasm for exploration and provide more frequent hooks for interacting with the public. This is not a program management issue; it is an outreach approach. It capitalizes to the maximum possible extent on the broad range of programs carried out by each agency and the well demonstrated highly positive public reaction to many robotic space activities.

For purposes of public outreach and public engagement, space agencies should present “space exploration” to the public as the broadest possible range of activities. By so doing, they will be able to incorporate more frequent significant action into what is labeled “exploration.” At the same time, agencies can take advantage of these more frequent events both to generate a sense of sustained progress in exploration and also to promote their exploration messages to the public on a more regular basis.

Ian Pryke and Peggy Finarelli are both senior fellows at the Center for Aerospace Policy Research, School of Public Policy, George Mason University. They were the co-organizers of the
workshop referenced in the first paragraph.