Status Report

AIP FYI #136: Should Mars be Human Space Flight Objective?

By SpaceRef Editor
October 24, 2003
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AIP FYI #136: Should Mars be Human Space Flight Objective?

“The whole point of leaving home is, after all, to go somewhere, not
to endlessly circle the block.” – Wesley Huntress, Carnegie

An October 16 hearing on the future of NASA’s human space flight
program revealed areas of consensus, and areas of disagreement,
among the witnesses on directions for the U.S. space flight
program. The panel of witnesses at this House Science Committee
hearing brought a tremendous depth of expertise covering manned and
unmanned space science and exploration, military technology, and the
history of technology. Several were former NASA officials. While
the witnesses saw little value in the current space shuttle and
space station programs, there was not a clear consensus on what
NASA’s goals for its human space flight program should be. Although
they believed a more ambitious program of exploration could be done
without a massive increase to the NASA budget, the witnesses did not
fully agree on whether more funding was needed and where it should
come from.

The panel concurred with Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert’s
(R-NY) statement that NASA’s current manned space flight program is
“not moving us toward any compelling objective” and the nation
“should transition out of” the shuttle and space station programs as
soon as possible. “Three decades of wishful thinking and
building…on an inadequate funding basis has led the nation into a
dead end, a blind alley,” stated Wesley Huntress of the Carnegie
Institution. “There is no point in the long run in doing what we’re
doing now,” added Bruce Murray of the California Institute of
Technology. Huntress and Murray, along with In-Q-Tel President
Michael Griffin, recommended that the long-term goal of the human
space flight program be sending humans to Mars and beyond, for a
broader human presence throughout the solar system. The other
witnesses were less certain of this objective. “It’s hard to see
what the payoff of exploration is,” remarked Duke University’s Alex
Roland. Matthew Koss of the College of the Holy Cross worried that
emphasis on such an ambitious undertaking might damage NASA’s
current science programs. “NASA right now has a vibrant program in
materials physics” and other scientific fields, he said, and “I’d
hate to see [an exploration initiative] injure or destroy the
physical science going on right now.”

Boehlert commended the prioritization of NASA’s budget set in 1990
by the Augustine Commission: space science, Earth science,
technology development, a heavy lift launch vehicle, and then human
space exploration. While several of the witnesses supported space
science as the highest priority, Griffin put human space flight at
the top of his list, testifying that he believed it is, “in the long
run, possibly the most significant activity in which our nation is
engaged.” He added that “technology development not tied to
specific goals…is wasted money.” Roland countered that the
development of new launch vehicles “is more important than all the
others combined,” because until launch capability is improved, for
“anything we want to do in space…we pay a penalty at the beginning
of every mission.”

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), Ranking Member of the Space and Aeronautics
Subcommittee, warned the panel that, “whether you like it or not,
we’re not going to have a significant increase in the budget.” When
Space Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) challenged the
witnesses on whether they would agree to an exploration initiative
if the funding came from U.S. university research programs, most
declined to support it on those terms. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI)
expressed dismay over “the optimism I see,” saying that a Mars
mission would be a “very long, very expensive, very difficult
journey.” He added that it would be difficult to gain support, even
within the scientific community, where many would argue that they
could do more valuable research with the same funds. The witnesses,
however, agreed that an exploration mission could be conducted
within NASA’s current budget or with a minimal increase that was
sustained over time. Griffin, Huntress and Murray all advocated a
flexible, progressive program with a series of short-term,
incremental milestones to be accomplished along the way, although
they disagreed about whether a lunar base would be an appropriate
intermediate objective.

There was consensus that the current human space flight program
should be redirected toward other goals, but also concern about
maintaining the nation’s commitments to its international space
station partners. “I believe there is value in the U.S. keeping its
word,” said Griffin. Huntress outlined “two choices” if funding
increases were not forthcoming: either “reengineer what we’re doing
now” and give up commitments to the foreign partners, or continue on
the current path, complete the space station – “which, to honor our
international commitments, I think we really must do” – and start to
plan for an exploration initiative after the station’s completion.

When Rep. Phil Gingery (R-GA) asked whether anything had been
learned from the space station, Huntress, who was formerly the NASA
Associate Administrator for Space Science, replied that its “utility
is rather singular.” The “real value of the space station,” he
said, is for learning how humans live and work in space. But Roland
argued that, even if the nation decides on a mission to Mars, the
greatest priority should be on getting to low earth orbit more
efficiently, rather than human physiology experiments. Because of
the risks of flying the shuttle, he said, “human space flight should
be suspended,” or curtailed, at least for the near term.

Regarding the use of automated versus manned spacecraft, Koss
testified that “the vast majority of physical science experiments”
on the station and shuttle “simply do not require on-board human
intervention,” and could be done more cheaply and efficiently on
free-flying platforms. Griffin noted that the type of spacecraft
“depends on the kind of question you’re trying to answer.”

“I lose track of what the purpose of a Mars mission should be,”
remarked Roland. “If it’s just exploration, we should send robots.
Murray responded that “the purpose of sending humans to Mars is not
to do science, and it never should be.” It is, he said, to “find
out if humans can operative effectively” in space, and prepare for
“what the future might hold.” Griffin declared that exploration “is
part of what we are as human beings.” His written statement quoted
Carl Sagan’s proposition that the human drive to explore may be “a
form of insurance against a local catastrophe” and that space
exploration is the “next step in protecting the human species
from…catastrophes on a planetary scale.”

Although not all supported a major new mission to establish outposts
on Mars and throughout the solar system, all five witnesses agreed
with Boehlert’s summation that “the primary reason for human
exploration is the impulse to explore, rather than a more
utilitarian goal that you can quantify or measure immediately,
although there can be collateral benefits.”

Audrey T. Leath

Media and Government Relations Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094

Related links

  • 16 October 2003: Rep. Boehlert’s Opening Statement: Hearing on The Future of Human Space Flight

  • 16 October 2003: Opening Statement by Rep. Ralph Hall: Hearing on The Future of Human Space Flight

  • 15 October 2003: Lampson Statement on Successful Chinese Human Space Flight

  • 16 October 2003: Witnesses Suggest Change of Course for NASA Human Space Flight Programs

  • 15 October 2003: House Science Committee Hearing Charter: “The Future of Human Space Flight”

    “In response to further questioning from Boehlert, all five witnesses also agreed that “the primary reason for human exploration is the impulse to explore, rather than any more utilitarian goal – although there can be collateral benefits; that we can take on ambitious goals without massive increases in the NASA budget; and that we should avoid sacrificing other NASA programs to achieve our human space flight goals.”

  • SpaceRef staff editor.