Roam in a Day

Presidential Commission Meets, Moon To Mars

Chartered to study how best to set priorities for the next moon and Mars initiative a newly-formed Presidential Commission — including four prominent scientists — held its first public forum and announced its nine commissioners. One task for the blue-ribbon panel, chaired by Defense veteran, Pete Aldridge, is to sustain a space exploration goal for several generations: "The biggest stumbling block is ensuring sustainability. Continued support has to span multiple generations. …to avoid the spikes and valleys according to whims of political leadership."

lunar module
Looking back
Credit: NASA

As the representative astrophysicist on the Commission, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium, answered the question of whether exploration itself can drive a national vision: "I lose sleep over this question. In the history of cultures, those who devoted major parts of their domestic treasures to large projects, there have been only three drivers."

Tyson listed the historical alternatives: "Economic return. Defense. And praise of royalty or a deity. In the case of the pyramids or Columbus, those drivers can encapsulate their national motivations."

"Not science, not exploration," continued Tyson, explaining that those who have financed exploration historically have had to recognize something more to the vision. "Columbus was a discoverer, but Italy did not write the check. It took the vision of a Spanish queen", Isabelle, patron of Columbus’s voyage across the Atlantic to the New World.

"Suppose we invented NASA today, could we do it for $15 billion?" asked Tyson, referring to an earlier Augustine commission that recommended a ten percent annual budgetary increase. "Augustine said, ‘no’, but one dollar per American per week–that is the total allocation–is not that much money. That is less than we spend on cosmetics. …and what if that had to go to fifty cents more per week?"

Aldridge addressed the question of cost and priorities further, "Affordability is a task we have on our charter. Program changes (redistributing NASA’s existing $11+ billion budget) plus five percent growth, it appears that is affordable."

Tyson also discussed some non-budgetary options available to bridge between the President’s proposal and the commissioners’ charter. "I have proposed that space exploration be a part of school curricula. Not supplanting other courses, but as part of what it means to have an educated citizenry."

Pathfinder landing image
Artist conception of Pathfinder’s dramatic airbag landing. Credit: NASA.

"What we need is technological leadership," said Dr. Marie Zuber of MIT. "At MIT whenever we have a Mars mission, the enrollment really spikes. We just need to sustain that….When students come and say ‘I want to help go to Mars, or help America go to Mars, I say there are 10,000 technological problems to solve. The students say back, ‘Give me one [problem] to start on’."

"We don’t want a vision that appears like a lion taking over a den," said Tyson. "where the new lion kills the cubs of his predecessor."

"If this is to be affordable," said chairman Aldridge, "it will have to progress with incremental milestones of success. That is spiral growth, where each step is not a goal, but a measurement…this is also a national vision, not only a NASA vision. That may come to look like a broader interagency plan…The program will have to be much different than a shuttle, space station or robotic program."

A current choice for space planners, the fate of the Hubble telescope, is not directly to be addressed by the exploration initiative commission, but has been chartered to the Gehman commission, which formerly investigated the Columbia accident. That choice is whether after 2007, to deorbit the Hubble Space Telescope or to attempt what some safety engineers are being asked to re-evaluate, which is another shuttle boost to the space telescope.

Dr. Laurie Leshin, another commissioner and director of Arizona State’s Center for Meteorite Studies, said about the Hubble debate: "It is a shame that any mission comes to an end. Space astronomy is important to who we are, and where we’re going."

In the early morning of August 25, 2003, NASA launched the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF) the fourth and final element in NASA’s family of Great Observatories.
Credit: Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., 2003

Zuber mentioned the forthcoming Webb telescope to follow soon after the planned Hubble deorbit, and a number of ground-based telescope projects. Tyson indicated he had not yet decided his vote in the matter, but Zuber and Tyson planned to poll major astronomical societies for their inputs. "The larger view of Hubble is that after it has had its one-decade lifespan, it is a household name. It is one chapter of a generation of space telescopes."

"The Spitzer [infrared] telescope is flying now, but just not a household name," said Tyson, who suggested that the commission may take up the question of educating the public about how each new space telescope addresses different parts of the electromagnetic spectra.

NASA’s Great Observatories currently maintain the X-ray Chandra space telescope, the infrared Spitzer, and Hubble in visible light. A gamma-ray observatory, called Compton, was deorbited without reboosting.

"My concern is how much Hubble may be part of sustained NASA support, by virtue of the drama around Hubble’s difficult birthing process," said Tyson, referring to the required repair mission and planned shuttle reboosts periodically needed. "Hubble astrophysics releases an image every three weeks or so. Often to the cover of Time or Newsweek…The planetary missions are spikes because the batteries die out or they have to go such long distances."

The commission will issue a report of recommendations, Moon to Mars, for Presidential review. "There are alot of technologies to implement for this iniative," said Zuber, "and many we haven’t thought of yet."

Related Web Pages

MER Rovers, JPL
The Unexplored Cosmos
Search for Life in the Universe I : Tyson
A Perfect World III: Goldin
Tyson Testimony to Congress on Astrobiology
Best Laid Plans, Men and Machines