NASA Needs a Clear Destination for Space Exploration, Experts Say
Daybreak on Oct. 20, 2009 finds NASA's towering 327-foot-tall Ares I-X rocket slowly making its way up to Launch Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for an Oct. 27 test flight.
Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett.

NEW YORK — Top space experts on Monday bemoaned the lack of a clear destination in the new NASA space plan proposed by President Barack Obama, but they often disagreed on what that new goal should be.

The space luminaries gathered at the Tenth Annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate at the American Museum of Natural History here to discuss the topic, "Moon, Mars and Beyond: Where next for the manned space program?" The debate was moderated by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the museum's Hayden Planetarium.

Tyson pointed out that the topic was particularly timely, given the announcement earlier this year by the Obama administration of a new plan for NASA under the 2011 budget request.

Moon pioneer and former Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin chimed in by telephone, arguing that NASA is on the clock to accomplish something significant before the political will for spaceflight fades.

"I think we need to consider the attention span of the public, and the term limit of people in Congress that want to get reelected," said Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. "We want to keep activity going that is inspirational for the young people, that is something that happens within term limits."

In need of a destination

President Obama?s new space proposal calls for the cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA's plan to build Orion capsules and Ares rockets to take humans back to the moon and beyond. Instead, the president directed NASA to support private companies to take up the job of ferrying humans to and from the space station and low-Earth orbit, and letting NASA focus on developing new technologies that could ultimately be used for a host of space objectives.

"It's a fundamental mistake to give NASA $20 billion a year and not give them a destination," Paul Spudis, a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, told the public crowd gathered for the debate. "My feeling is that wherever you go? you've got to pick something, because if you're not working towards something, you're going to get nothing."

Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, agreed. Without a specific goal, NASA was likely to waste money designing separate technologies that don't work together, he said.

"If you just have technology development programs, you get a thruster without a reactor to power it," Zubrin said. "You have to develop the complete set that fits together to give you mission capability."

But another panelist, retired Air Force general Lester Lyles, disagreed. He remains confident that NASA will produce useful technologies even without a firm destination.

"I have a lot more confidence in the people at NASA and their ability to do the right thing. I don't think it's going to be a waste of money," Lyles said.

Lyles served on the Augustine committee, the panel appointed by President Obama to research possible directions for NASA in advance of the budget proposal. Lyles said many of the committee's recommendations had been adopted.

"We can do a lot with this particular budget," he added. "Yes, I'm a little bit concerned that we don't have a specific destination and a specific timeframe."

But he said even without those things NASA would not take a "willy-nilly approach."

Where to next?

The panelists sometimes diverged on the question of where American astronauts should actually be sent.

After the confirmation last year of water ice on the moon, Spudis said Earth's satellite had become even more attractive as a next destination because it offers some of the raw materials humans need to live in space.

"We're going to have to learn to take what we find in space and convert it into what we need," Spudis said. "The moon is the ideal place to do that. The moon is a key stepping stone into the rest of the solar system."

But Zubrin argued that the moon was old hat, and the real frontier is Mars, which has the potential to inspire young people and create a new generation of scientists and engineers.

"That is why Mars, precisely because it is where the challenge is, has unrepresented economic benefits," he said.

Zubrin highlighted the potential for discovering current or past microbial life on Mars as one of the benefits of visiting the red planet.

"This is truly grand science and it's truly worth spending some money and risking human life to achieve," he said.

Steven Squyres of Cornell University, who is the principal investigator for NASA's Mars Exploration Rover project, suggested asteroids as an appealing destination.

"Asteroids are an incredibly rich source of raw materials," he said. But he also agreed the moon and Mars are worth going to.

"I think the next place you have to go is actually the moon," Squyres said. "It's a place to test out and try out the things you need to go to the interesting places."

But he emphasized that the moon was merely a stepping stone toward the larger goal of getting to Mars.

Another panelist, Kenneth Ford of the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, who is chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, said it was important simply to make sure NASA goes somewhere.

?The fact of the matter is, the issue is whether we get to go to any of these places," Ford said. "Most of the hardware that will take us to one will take us anywhere."

When can NASA get there?

Many of the panelists also lamented the lack of a deadline for space goals in the new Obama administration plan.

Ford said the proposal disappointed him not because it excised the moon program, but because it did not replace it with a concrete objective and a concrete time frame in which to achieve it.

"The response that I had was not a response to seeing the moon not in the plan, but it was a response to seeing the lack of a timeline," Ford said.

Zubrin argued that wherever we go, it better be soon, because plans that take too long to perform often lose their political support.

"You can't reach Mars in 30 years, you can't reach Mars in 20 years," he said. "If you want to get to Mars you have to do it in 10 years or less."