To inspire the American people about the Vision for Space Exploration, and to focus the agency on its central mission, NASA should immediately establish a Moon and Mars Astronaut Corps. This elite cadre, set up within the existing astronaut body, would bring together the heroes who will lead the great journey ahead.
Such a corps would tremendously augment the connection between the NASA of today and the NASA that will explore the Moon and Mars. Strengthening this connection -- between the programs that NASA is working on now and the explorations in NASA's future -- is critical for both the near- and far-term success of the vision.
Establishing a Moon and Mars Astronaut Corps would be a cost-effective, high-impact action that would give the vision a heroic human face inside and outside of NASA. It would also materially improve the development programs of the next decade. Its advantages are many:
- It would be highly visible. By selecting a smaller, elite team within the existing astronaut corps, the Vision for Space Exploration would be personified. NASA needs heroic household names again.
- It can be done now. The Moon and Mars Astronaut Corps would require the development of no new hardware, and utilize a tremendous existing asset within the agency. This timeliness is absolutely critical: we as a community need to do everything we can now to make the link to the exciting future in the minds of Congress and the public.
- It can be done at marginal additional expense. While nothing in government is free, the Moon and Mars Astronaut Corps would require little new money. Later, NASA may choose to augment the Corps with special analogue training missions, but the essential program would require only a well-conceived selection process.
- It would impart significant momentum to the vision. By creating a highly visible stakeholder community for the vision, NASA could transform the astronauts corps into active players in the journey around which they have shaped their lives. This would create significant public support for following the vision.
- It would reinvigorate the astronaut corps internally and in the eyes of the American public. The American public engages with issues and programs through human representatives. These representatives are often celebrities. A smaller, elite group would be more identifiable, and would thus be better suited to improve public engagement with the space exploration program.
The First Steps
Such a program must be designed with care to achieve maximum benefit. As the corps is planned and selected, we must ensure that its purpose reaches both the space professionals of today and the students who will make up the explorers of tomorrow. The following considerations should be included in NASA's design of the corps.
While not all members of the corps may ultimately be selected to fly to the Moon or Mars--a point which NASA should make clear--the founding intent of the program would be to use the corps as the main source of the first crews. The main programmatic goal would be to create a cadre with specialization in the particular challenges of lunar and martian exploration, a resource which could be drawn on for a variety of purposes in later years.
The selection of the teams will in itself be a critical process, and one that could touch all of NASA as well as the American public.
Advertising the job description for lunar and martian explorers is something that would do much to inspire the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. It should be made clear that the corps will not be fully staffed at its inception--the expectation being that it would be filled as mission dates approached.
NASA needs to make sure that the next generation of explorers knows that the corps is still open and waiting for them. In public communications, NASA could make the point that many people--far beyond the astronauts of the corps--also will participate as explorers in the missions ahead. Additional open spots would drive motivation for students, scientists, engineers and the astronaut corps.
What will members of the corps do until Moon and Mars missions begin? Above all, they will be astronauts, training and preparing for shuttle and space station missions. As part of their membership in the corps, these astronauts would pursue several specialized suites of activity:
- Engage in focused research and development related to exploration technologies. As NASA moves into the next phases of the vision, it will devote greater resources to the development programs specific to the lunar and martian missions. As it does so, close engagement must be maintained between astronaut users and the engineering community. Such engagement was very productive during the development of robotic systems integration standards for the space station, as it proved to be in the Mercury and Gemini programs.
- Pursue analogue missions on Earth to drive the knowledge base for their respective missions. NASA must increase such activity over the coming years as it prepares for ground missions on other worlds. One of the main programmatic goals would be the development of team members with specializations in the particular characteristics of extraterrestrial environments.
- Promote their particular mission to the United States and the world. With their special status, the members of the corps will receive a special hearing by Congress and the American public.
Initial members would be chosen from the existing astronaut corps. We feel it is important to open this process to international candidates. Such candidates should be judged on the merits; if they are accepted, then their country of origin would be required to pay whatever incremental costs are associated with their participation in the program.
Establishing the Moon and Mars Astronaut Corps would be among the most exciting programmatic actions that NASA can take now to make the vision real. Quite literally, there is no time to waste. The next generation of heroes stands ready.
George Whitesides is the executive director of the National Space Society. Gary Bernhard is the chairman of the society's Executive Committee.