The Journey to Mars Starts with the Journey to the Moon

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Heads of Agencies public forum.

One of the highlights of the International Astronautical Congress is the annual Heads of Agencies public forum. In recent years the forum hasn't produced much in the way of substantive discourse. That was not the case this year.

This years panel included leaders from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Federal Space Agency (ROSCOSMOS) of Russia, China's National Space Administration (CNSA), the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the hosts, the Israel Space Agency (ISA).

All were represented by their head of agency, with the exception of ISRO who sent Krisha Murthy, Scientific Secretary.

The questions from the moderators and audience were much better than in past years and fostered active and informative discourse between the panelists.

Three themes emerged from; The need for even stronger international cooperation, the moon as the next destination and the need to provide ongoing measurable benefits to the public from Earth observation. The last theme was championed by new ESA Director General, Jan Woerner.

Each panelist had a short opportunity to discuss their space programs. Some highlights from this part of the program included Isaac Ben-Israel of the ISA stressing that Israel was continuing to work on making satellites smaller, going from 300kg as an example, to 100kg without losing performance.

Jan Woerner of ESA brought up the issue of migration and how Earth observation could help make better decisions on where migrants settle.

Russia's Igor Komarov cited the need to raise efficiency within the Russian space program, the need to continue working on the International Space Station (ISS) through 2014 and opening up the ISS to more nations.

China for its part stressed the desire to have full international cooperation with other countries. This idea, which was later brought up during the Q&A, elicited a response from NASA's administrator Charles Bolden that NASA was "temporarily" unable to cooperate with China and that he felt they were "on the outside, looking in" as other nations, including all on the panel, were discussing cooperative projects with China.

Bolden also stressed that NASA was constrained in what it could do because of its budget, politics and national will.

When asked what the next destination for exploration should be, the overwhelming consensus was more moon exploration. China's Xu Dazhe discussed their moon sample return mission and a lander on the far side of the moon, with a moon first approach. ESA's Woerner concurred with the "moon first" approach which he called a "moon village", meaning international cooperation on several projects. Other agency leaders chimed in on the need for further moon exploration.

Based on the thoughts of the panelists it seems the Journey to Mars starts with the Journey to the Moon.

But fear not those who espouse the idea of more Mars missions including a human mission. Several of the panelists discussed future Mars missions including China's Xu who said they have an incremental approach to Mars exploration starting with a Mars lander and rover in 2020.

This years panel certainly seemed up to the task of having a meaningful conversation which left the audience wanting more.

Related:

- Jerusalem Welcomes the International Space Community Amidst Wave of Violence
- More stories from this years International Astronautical Congress

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