An invitation-only gathering of space experts at
Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., ended Feb. 13 without producing the call to bypass the Moon on the way to Mars that some had been expecting.
Instead, the 50 scientists, astronauts, academics, space executives
and former government officials participating in the two-day workshop issued a non-controversial joint communique urging more money for NASA and a recommitment to the goals of the Vision for Space Exploration put forward by U.S. President George W. Bush in January 2004.
Lou Friedman, executive director of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Planetary Society and one of the organizers of the workshop, said Bush got it right in calling
for NASA to set a course for Mars by way of the Moon and in
seeking the help of other nations in extending humanity’s presence beyond low-Earth orbit.
But in the intervening four years, Friedman said, both NASA and the White House seem to have lost sight of Mars as the exploration program’s driving destination, international collaboration has been relegated to a supporting role, and the budget boost Bush promised to help jump-
start the initiative never materialized.
As a result, an increasingly cash-strapped NASA has found itself postponing worthwhile science programs and all but eliminating its investments in new technology as it focuses on planting an outpost on the Moon.
Freidman and others fear that the outpost will become “another space station,”
in Earth’s immediate vicinity for another generation.
“I personally would characterize the program as a lunar base program. And I would rather see it characterized – and I think our recommendations are absolutely consistent with this – that it be characterized as a stepping-stone program,” Friedman said.
The joint communique issued at the workshop’s conclusion reads in part: “NASA’s program for human exploration must lead to Mars and beyond, and achieving that goal will require future presidents to embrace international collaboration and to fund NASA at a level that will also sustain its vital science programs.”
About a 15 percent increase in NASA’s budget is needed, workshop organizers said, noting that the $17.3 billion the agency has to work with today is about $3 billion less in inflation-adjusted dollars
had in 1992.
“NASA has been declining in real terms. It’s now down to 0.6 percent of the budget. For a long time it was at 0.7 percent. If we could get it back to that level it would relieve some of the pressure in the system,” Friedman said.
Something else the next U.S. president can do to take some strain off of NASA’s budget is to take a fresh look at international collaboration, workshop organizers said. While NASA says international contributions are welcome, the agency’s current plan is to build all the hardware it needs to go to the Moon and establish outposts for long-duration stays.
the agency put on the human exploration [program]
was that the U.S. would build out all of the infrastructure, do all the work, pave the roads, get everything in place and the Europeans or the other internationals might come and do an off-ramp,” said Scott Hubbard, a Stanford professor and former director of NASA Ames Research Center,
who helped organize the workshop. “We are urging the next administration to revisit that requirement to see if there is some broader international collaboration that will add this capability without putting the entire price tag on the back of the U.S.”
Hubbard said that contrary to some news reports it was never the intent of the workshop to come up with an alternate set of destinations for NASA’s human space exploration program.
The workshop took place amid
expectations that it
would produce an alternative vision for space exploration that would recommend bypassing
the Moon in favor of sending astronauts to
near-Earth asteroids or building giant space telescopes 1 million kilometers from Earth as a way to limber up for a Mars expedition.
Even NASA Administrator Mike Griffin
appeared to be bracing for a
barrage of criticism
Defending his agency’s budget request before the House Science and Technology Committee here Feb. 13 as the second day of the workshop was getting under way, Griffin delivered a pre-emptive rebuttal of what the group might say.
“The argument that this group of space policy experts is putting forth comes down
fundamentally to one about the choice of destinations. They do not see the Moon as a valuable destination;
I do,” Griffin said. “They would prefer if the funds that we are presently allocating toward returning to the Moon and then going to Mars be utilized to put large telescopes near one of the Lagrange points, to visit near
Earth asteroids, and to go more quickly to Mars. I regard that as foolish, frankly.”
What emerged from the workshop was a bit different.
About the Moon, the communique said this: “The purpose of sustained human exploration is to go to Mars and beyond. The significance of the Moon and other intermediate destinations is to serve as steppingstones on the path to that goal.”
“I’m puzzled why this is being perceived as a critique instead of an affirmation of what NASA is actually doing,” said former astronaut Kathryn Thornton, now an engineering professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Thornton said she came away from the workshop with a newfound respect for the Moon as NASA’s next step.
“I came here as a Mars-direct proponent and I have changed my mind,” she told reporters during a media briefing organized by Stanford and the Planetary Society. “I listened to the conversations about the technical complexity of getting humans to Mars – not just spacecraft, but getting humans to Mars – and getting them back, and from that conversation I now feel that the Moon as a stepping-stone is a prudent decision.”
But Thornton also said she is not comfortable with NASA’s current emphasis on permanent lunar outposts.
“Any step out of [low Earth orbit] needs to be a stepping stone toward Mars,” she said. “We are not looking for a dead end where we might get stuck for a generation or two.”