A new report released by an AmericanPhysical Society (APS) Special Committee on NASA Funding for Astrophysics hasquestioned the space agency's Moon, Mars and Beyond initiative. The APSassessment warns that t he cost of overcoming technologicalchallenges to make real the plan could far exceed budgetary projections and thatnumerous approved science programs could be jeopardized.
"ReturningAmericans to the Moon and landing on Mars would have a powerful symbolicsignificance," the APS report observes, "but it would constitute only a smallstep in the advancement of knowledge, since much will already be known fromexploration with the robotic precursor probes that are necessary to guaranteethe safety of any human mission."
The APS report was authored by a 10-person group,with the committee chaired by Joel Primack, a professor of physics and aleading astrophysicist at the Universityof California, Santa Cruz.
According to their web site,the American Physical Society is the world's largest professional bodyof physicists, representing more than 45,000 physicists in academia and industry inthe United States and internationally. It has offices in College Park,Maryland and Ridge, New York.
Negative ripple effect
Tounderscore their concerns, the APS reports that in the wake of the Moon-Marsinitiative, NASA's "readjusted priorities" have already created a negativeripple effect for space science: For instance, the Laser Interferometer SpaceAntenna (LISA) has been delayed a year while Constellation X (Con-X) has beendelayed until at least 2016.
LISA will use an array of freeflying satellites to carefully measure the baseline expansion or contractiondue to the passage of gravitational waves while Con-X will perform X-rayspectroscopic studies of some of the most extreme objects in the Universe.
Both instruments received high priority from the astronomy community forconstruction in the current decade.
Furthermore, otherscientific missions have been delayed indefinitely, cites the APS report. Amongthem the Einstein Probes, which are moderate sized missions aimed atdetermining the nature of dark energy, observing regions near black holes, andstudying the imprint of cosmic inflation on the cosmic background radiation.Also, NASA's Explorer program is another activity that is being affected by theMoon-Mars program.
Ill-defined Moon-Mars initiative
OnJanuary 14, U.S. President Bush announced a new vision for NASA thatincorporated a human return to the Moon by 2020, follow-on exploration of Marsand other destinations.
Inthe view of APS, the impact of the President's proposal on scientific programswithin NASA and other agencies "could be substantial and must be assessedcarefully," the report stresses.
- Key findings noted in the APS report are:
- Human exploration has a role to play in NASA, but it must be within a balanced program in which allocated resources span the full spectrum of the space sciences and take advantage of emerging scientific opportunities and synergies.
- The recent spectacular successes of NASA's space telescopes and the Mars Rovers amply demonstrate that we can use robotic means to address many important scientific questions.
- Astronauts on Mars might achieve greater scientific returns than robotic missions, but they would come at such a high cost that scientific grounds, alone, would probably not provide a sufficient rationale.
- The scope of the Moon-Mars initiative has not been well-defined, its long-term cost has not been adequately addressed, and no budgetary mechanisms have been established to avoid causing major irreparable damage to the agency's scientific program.
- To accommodate the Moon-Mars initiative, NASA has already begun to reprogram its existing budget, resulting in indefinite postponement or serious delay of science programs that were assigned high priority by the National Academy of Sciences decadal studies.
- In addition to affecting NASA's internal priorities, an ill-defined Moon-Mars initiative of very large scale could harm programs in other science agencies.
In wrapping up its findings, the APSreport makes a trio of recommendations regarding the Moon-Mars initiative.
First of all, NASA should continueto be guided by the priorities recommended in the National Academy of Sciences(NAS) decadal studies in formulating its science programs. The NAS should alsoreview the Moon-Mars proposal in regards to its science impact before the United Statescommits to the initiative.
Similarly, the APS report recommendsthat the Government Accountability Office should estimate the budgetary impactprior to the United Statesgreen-lighting the Moon-Mars proposal.
The APSreport has met with some disapproval.
One criticis former Congressman Robert Walker, a member of thePresidential Commission on the Implementation of the United States SpaceExploration Policy in 2004 - also known as the Aldridge Commission given its chairman, Pete Aldridge.
"The APSreport ignores the contention of the Aldridge Commission that the Moon to Marsand Beyond Vision is enabled by science and enables science," Walker told SPACE.com. "It is the present mission at NASA that lacks directionand focus. The Moon to Mars and Beyond program isan attempt to refocus NASA in a positive way," Walker said.
"The APSreport is a defense of the NASA that "has been" rather than an effortto create the NASA that "can be"," Walker concluded.
Robot versus human explorers
The strongpro-robot message of the APS stirred up a response from Robert Zubrin,President of the Mars Society.
"The APS report is false on its face," Zubrin told SPACE.com. "In fact, NASA's mostcost-effective science program to date has been the Hubble Space Telescope, ahuman spaceflight activity. Hubble may have cost twice the Galileo mission to Jupiter,but it has returned more than 100 times the science. This is proof that whenhuman spaceflight activities are properly targeted, they can achieve far morescience return than is possible with robotic means,"
One of the central questions confronting science today is the origin oflife, and the uniqueness or generality of the processes that allow it, Zubrinsaid.
"The answers in this matter can best be found by sending human explorersto Mars, who can search the environment for fossils and set up drilling rigs toreach liquid ground water where extant life may yet exist. By sampling suchlife and examining its biochemistry we can find out fundamental truths aboutthe nature of life in the universe. This can only be done by human explorers,"Zubrin explained.
Get the Space.com Newsletter
Breaking space news, the latest updates on rocket launches, skywatching events and more!
Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.