As NASAsets its sights on returning to the Moon, the U.S. space agency wants to makesure the scientific research done there is no mere afterthought, but awell-conceived program developed in close consultation with the scientificcommunity.
To makesure that happens NASA has asked the National Academy of Sciences to develop aprioritized list of science goals for the lunar orbiters and landers that theagency intends to send to the Moon starting in 2008, as well as the initialhuman sorties slated to begin 10 years later. Draft recommendations are due toNASA later this summer with a final report expected to be published in early2007.
The ad hoccommittee of 15 scientists in charge of producing the forthcoming report, "TheScientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon," met here June 20-22 to getthat work started. Paul Hertz, chief scientist for NASA's Science MissionDirectorate, instructed the committee to focus on science objectives that couldnot be done anywhere else.
"I'm surethere is a lot of great science that can be done on the Moon that can also bedone elsewhere," Hertz said. "We'd like to pay particular attention to thescience that can best or only be done on the Moon. It's a unique and expensiveopportunity, and we want to make sure we are concentrating our limitedresources on the highest priorities that can be enabled by this program."
Forexample, Hertz said that when people suggest putting a telescope on the Moon,he tells them "the real question is 'would you rather have that telescope atthe Moon or this telescope in orbit?' because those are the choices we will bemaking."
"We don't have extra money for an extratelescope," Hertz said. "So the question isn't what telescopes can you do fromthe Moon, it's which astrophysics is best done from the Moon as opposed toorbit, the surface of the Earth or other venues. And that's true for all of thescience."
Hertz, whowas filling in for Mary Cleave, NASA's associate administrator for science,said any science objectives the committee proposes would have to compete forfunding against already-established science priorities.
"The exploration program is not science drivenbut we want to do as much great science as we possibly can within the resourcesthat are available to us," Hertz said, later adding: "There is no augmentationto the science budget to execute any science opportunities that are enabled byexploration no matter how important they are."
NASA's $5.3billion-a-year science budget is projected to grow at less than the rate ofinflation through at least the end of the decade, even as marquee programs suchas the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope require more funding.
As recentlyas last year, NASA had told scientists that their share of the agency's budgetwould continue to grow by 5 percent to 7 percent annually. NASA's abruptreversal, although primarily driven by the space shuttle program'sgreater-than-expected funding needs, has prompted broad segments of thescientific community to blame the agency's space exploration goals for theirdiminished budgetary prospects.
Hertzacknowledged the scientific community's skepticism about the scientificimportance of U.S. President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration whenhe stressed to the National Academy committee the importance NASA places onengaging the community in formulating sound science goals for the Moon program.
"We want toalways be doing outreach to the communities so they recognize that this isn'tjust some little tidewater activity that we are spinning off because thepresident decided that the nation is going back to the Moon, but in fact thisis part of our integrated science program," Hertz said. "Outreach is importantor else I think we are going to end up with a situation like much of thehistory of the space station was where the science community was against it,OK, because they didn't see the value of the science because the science wasn'testablished with bona fides that they recognized."
Hertz alsosaid the way NASA plans to go about formulating its lunar science program is atleast as important as the content itself.
"It isimportant that as the agency starts to put together the science program thatwill accompany and is enabled by exploration, it have a firm foundation on whatthe community recognizes as well-posed, well-founded, high-priority science andthat the priorities were arrived at through the kind of processes that theyrecognize and put great faith in," Hertz said. "We don't want to do a top-downscience program because we don't believe that even if it was the same program,that the science communities would recognize it as a quality science program."
In parallelto the National Academy effort, the NASA Advisory Council also will be taking aclose look at lunar science objectives, Hertz said. And in the months ahead,NASA plans to solicit proposals from the scientific community for concept studiesfocused on research payloads -- so-called surface science packages -- that couldbe sent along with the astronauts conducting the initial lunar sorties expectedto commence around 2018.
Hertz saidNASA hopes to award a half-dozen or more yearlong study contracts. "We would like to engage the sciencecommunity now in thinking about what kind of good science can be done on theMoon and create a little buzz hopefully about some funded opportunities in thenear term."
"Werecognize that articulating a compelling and important science program iscritical to the success of bringing the science community on as partners as wetake advantage of the opportunities that are enabled through the explorationprogram," Hertz added.
A chartHertz used in his presentation to the group made the point even more strongly,saying "weak science would be questioned and could jeopardize the entireprogram."
When thecommittee's co-chair, Brown University planetary scientist Carle Pieters, askedHertz about the "inconsistencies" of a space exploration initiative that is notscience driven, yet dependent on a strong science program for its continuedexistence, Hertz backpedaled a bit.
"Maybe'entire lunar program' is too strong," Hertz said. "But as I said before, Idon't want to be in the position of having the science community antagonisticto the lunar program. I want them to be enthusiastic because the science that'sbeing done is important science. I want us to establish the science componentof the lunar exploration activities in the right way, to do the best science sothat [those in] the science community are willing and enthusiastic partners forthis."
That maytake some doing given how reluctant some scientists are to get behind what manyderisively refer to as "another space station" -- a big, expensive undertakingthat demands near-term sacrifices in exchange for eventual scientific richesslow to materialize.
A particularly skeptical note was sound bycommittee member Anthony England, a former NASA astronaut who helped developradars used to probe the Moon on Apollo 17.
"This sounds like the discussion from earlyspace station where you are trying to satisfy everybody's goals and theneventually you don't satisfy anybody's," England said.
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Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and SpaceNews.com. He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.