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Vision Targets Heavenly Bodies

U.S. space exploration plan gives NASA focused mission to return to the moon

by Susan R. Morrissey
March 1, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 9

The new U.S. space exploration vision calls for a return to Earth's moon.
The new U.S. space exploration vision calls for a return to Earth's moon.

In 1961, a young National Aeronautics & Space Administration was charged with the mission of putting a person on the moon. With hard work and ample funding, NASA achieved that goal in July 1969. Forty years later, NASA is being asked to return to the moon.

AND BEYOND<b> The new U.S. space exploration vision calls for a return to Earth's moon. NASA PHOTO

"This plan is way overdue," says John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. Logsdon was a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which called for a national vision for human space flight in its final report (C&EN, Sept. 1, 2003, page 6). "It's great for not only NASA, but for the country, that we finally have a sense of why we're doing human space-flight missions. Now it's up to the country to see whether we really want to explore space or not," he explains.

To get NASA on track to send astronauts to the moon and beyond, the plan sets three goals. The first goal is to return the space shuttle to flight as soon as safely possible so that ISS can be completed by the end of the decade, fulfilling the U.S. obligation to the project. Once ISS is complete, the shuttle will be retired from use. In the meantime, the U.S. research objective of ISS will be immediately refocused to study the effects of space flight on human health.

The second goal is to develop a replacement spacecraft for the shuttle. The development of a crew exploration vehicle, known as Project Constellation, is expected to be ready for crewed service by 2014--four years after the shuttle is expected to make its last flight. During this downtime, the U.S. would again have to rely on Russian spacecraft to travel to and from ISS, as has been the case for the past year since the shuttles were grounded following the Columbia loss.

And the final part of the plan is to resume human missions to the moon and set up a lunar station by 2020 that will serve as a "stepping stone for more ambitious missions." Robotic missions will also be maximized to increase the knowledge base of the solar system, according to the plan.

Critical to the success of the new space policy is whether NASA can keep the cost of the new exploration-driven missions at an affordable level, experts agree. To this end, the Administration's plan calls for a budget of $12 billion over the next five years for exploration. Of that, $11 billion will be reallocated from within NASA's current budget and $1 billion in new funding will be requested. The projected future costs of the program following 2009 through 2020 would be covered by inflationary budget growth, NASA reports.

THE REALLOCATION of $11 billion from within NASA's five-year projected budget of $86 billion has many people outside NASA worrying that the agency will raid other programs. According to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, 75% of the reallocated funds will come from within the human space programs and the rest will come from termination of earth science and institutional activities that are in their early stages. Exact details are still being worked out.

"NASA has already canceled the shuttle flight to service the Hubble Space Telescope. I think that is the first hint of what's going to happen," points out Alex Roland, professor of history at Duke University. "There's just going to be a bloodletting at NASA in the programs that I think really give the best return on investment," he says.

How this plan affects physical science research, which is supported by the Office of Biological & Physical Research (OBPR), is still unclear. The office is currently in the process of reevaluating its research to better align itself with the new objectives, says Eugene Trinh, director of the Physical Sciences Division in OBPR. While the results of the review are not expected until early summer, Trinh says that basic research such as fundamental physics and materials research are "obvious things to be phased out."

In addition to concern over program terminations, the overall cost of the vision is drawing congressional interest. At a hearing last month before the House Science Committee, NASA's O'Keefe was questioned intensely by committee members about the price tag of the plan and how the funding would be used. He told the representatives that the plan was "achievable, ambitious, focused, and affordable" and assured them that it did not require a massive commitment of support up front.

Furthermore, O'Keefe stressed that the cost of the program is hard to nail down because the necessary technology is still being developed. For this reason, O'Keefe was hesitant to give a benchmark program cost to the committee, referring instead to a chart NASA developed to show the projected program costs through 2020.

"It's great for not only NASA, but for the country, that we finally have a sense of why we're doing human spaceflight missions."

THE GREAT FEAR among congressional members is that they will lose control of this program in the same way they lost control of spending for the space station, says Howard E. McCurdy, professor of public affairs and chairman of the public administration department at American University. "They are nervous about undertaking the commitment and generating momentum which they then wouldn't be able to stop," he explains.

According to McCurdy, it is possible to derive the incremental effect of this policy as a gauge of its cost. Using NASA's projections, he tells C&EN that the cost of the development phase of the program will be about $42 billion through 2020.

"The strategy that people are proposing for this initiative is that NASA use this $42 billion wedge over the next 16 years to see if they can perfect Project Constellation and also to see whether or not they can get any better type of propulsion system for deep-space missions--known as Project Prometheus," McCurdy explains. "Then everyone will sit down around the campfire sometime about 2015 or 2020 and rerun the cost estimates to see how much it would cost to do some dramatic deep-space missions," he says.

"If it turns out that it is going to cost a trillion dollars in 2020, then we bag it and go with robots, and that's kind of the end of the human spaceflight program," McCurdy says. "If, on the other hand, the vision transforms NASA and the aerospace industry, than you can move ahead with the human flight and the robotics."

Although NASA's ability to operate within a budget is an important issue, some observers have a more basic concern. "I'm not convinced that the President is serious about the plan," Roland says. The Bush plan is likely a combination of two factors: election-year campaigning and a ploy to finish ISS, he says.

"Every Republican president since Sputnik announces a national commitment to a manned space spectacular in the year that he is running for reelection," Roland points out. "It's just what Republican presidents do in their reelection year."

With respect to ISS, Roland says, "the real purpose of this plan is to save the space station or at least keep the space station from embarrassing President Bush in a second term." This new stream of funding helps NASA circumvent the cap Congress had placed on ISS costs but leaves little money for exploration initiatives, he points out.

Others in the community discount the plan to send humans to other heavenly bodies as a romantic vision. "This plan makes no sense," says Robert L. Park, director of the American Physical Institute. "The only purpose for sending humans up there is to satisfy people's longing for romance. As Rep. Barney Frank said: 'If you want romance, read Danielle Steele.' "

Park says he has no objections to going back to the moon, but questions whether NASA would find anything there to justify the costs. To him, NASA should forget human exploration and focus on what it does best: robotic missions.

A member of the Mars Exploration Rover team poses with two generations of rovers--one a spare of the Sojourner (left) and one like the more technically advanced rovers on Mars now.
A member of the Mars Exploration Rover team poses with two generations of rovers--one a spare of the Sojourner (left) and one like the more technically advanced rovers on Mars now.

"THE GREAT ADVENTURE of our time, which has never been possible before in human history, is to explore those places on which no human foot can ever step," Park says. "We can go anywhere in our solar system and explore it now" because we have the technology to build robots that can withstand all types of conditions, he explains.

The idea that "we need to see and examine and touch for ourselves," as said by President Bush during the unveiling of the new policy, is not a good driver for human missions to Mars, Park says. "If a human were on Mars, he would have to walk around in a space suit," Park notes. The space suit, which would protect the astronaut from the harsh conditions of the Red Planet, including radiation, would restrict the explorer's senses to only what he or she could see. "He's got a little box around himself that cuts him off from Mars," Park explains.

In this situation, robots such as the Mars Exploration rovers are a better option, Park says. "The eyes that we've got on those robots can focus all the way from telescopic down to microscopic--far, far better than human eyes," he explains.

The term robot, however, often conveys the wrong image to the public, Park says. "They have this image of a clunky, stupid creature--Robby the Robot--and that's not what we are talking about," he explains. "We are simply talking about a natural extension of the scientist's reach. Scientists are used to making the measurements with their tools. This is just another tool to make a measurement," he says.

As robotic technology continues to advance, the probes NASA uses will become even better. For example, Park points out, the rovers currently exploring Mars are far more advanced than Pathfinder's minirover Sojourner, which landed on the planet in 1997. "Human beings haven't improved in 35,000 years, but our robots get better every day," he notes.

Besides, Park questions whether President Bush ever intends to send crewed missions to Mars. "Long before we could send a human being to Mars, our robots will have pretty much finished the job, and I think the President knew it," he says.

Not everyone agrees with Park's assessment. There will still be a lot of work for humans to do on Mars, Logsdon says. "Humans are a lot more capable at pattern recognition, reprogramming themselves as they find unexpected things, and traversing long distances," he points out, adding that the human-robotic partnership the plan calls for is the right way to tackle the new objectives.

THE DEBATE OVER FUTURE human exploration missions may be moot, however, unless NASA is willing to make a "commitment to the commitment," McCurdy says. In other words, NASA is going to have to change the way it operates, just as it was forced to do during the Apollo era when it first landed men on the moon.

"The plan's objectives are feasible; they're just very difficult to do, in the same way that the Apollo program was really impossible in 1961," McCurdy explains. "NASA had to be totally reorganized and totally rebudgeted, as well as having to invent new technologies. Eight years later we were on the moon," he notes.

According to McCurdy, one difference from the Apollo era that makes the current transformation more difficult has to do with trade-offs between project cost, schedule, and reliability. "In the case of Apollo, the constraints were reliability and schedule, and Congress relaxed cost," he says. This time, the Administration is constraining reliability and cost while relaxing schedule, he explains.

Another difference from the Apollo era is the political structure of the world. The Cold War with the former Soviet Union is over. There is a new willingness to establish international collaborations to achieve difficult goals such as ISS, which includes the U.S., Russia, and 14 other countries. It was in this spirit of cooperation that President Bush invited other nations to join in his new vision.


"I think this focus provides an opportunity for all space-faring countries to work together, potentially including China," Logsdon says. "I think there is a good chance for others to buy into the U.S. plan."

As for what this plan means for our international partners regarding ISS, NASA's Trinh thinks they will benefit. "The international partners should be better off for space station research itself," Trinh says. "For example, in collaboration on materials sciences, our international partners now have full access to our facilities."

NASA has said that it expects to use ISS until about 2016, after which time the station's fate will remain in the hands of the other international partners. The U.S. has begun work on a new agreement with its partners; the current one is set to expire in 2006.

With a national vision in hand, NASA is now responsible for its own fate. "The challenge is that people in the space community have now gotten what they've asked for, and that's a rather sobering experience," McCurdy points out. "It's easier to ask for it and dream about it than it is to actually get it."


NASA Cuts Mission To Hubble

The last time astronauts serviced Hubble was in March 2002.
The last time astronauts serviced Hubble was in March 2002.

As the National Aeronautics & Space Administration prepares to meet the goals laid out in the new U.S. space exploration plan, it faces some tough decisions. Perhaps the most difficult, according to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, was the decision to cancel the fourth and final scheduled service mission of the Hubble Space Telescope in early 2006.

NASA says it has decided to scrap the service mission because the risk is too high. In testimony before the House Science Committee, O'Keefe also noted that the agency's inability to honestly address the recommendations of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) report regarding in-flight safety inspections played a role in the decision.

Without the shuttle mission, the 14-year-old space telescope will begin to experience difficulty fixing on specific objects due to failing gyroscopes and its batteries will begin to fade as early as 2006. But Hubble advocates are not willing to let the telescope die without a fight.

"Hubble has made so many extraordinary contributions to science, exploration, and discovery," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) in support of the space telescope. "We cannot prematurely terminate the last servicing mission without a rigorous review."

To that end, Mikulski sent a letter to O'Keefe requesting a second opinion on the agency's decision to terminate the program. O'Keefe responded by asking retired Navy Adm. Harold W. Gehman Jr., chairman of CAIB, to review NASA's decision.

In the meantime, NASA will continue to work on returning the space shuttles to flight. The agency has shifted the window for the next shuttle flight from this fall until March 2005.


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