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Neil Tyson speaks about the commission’s examination of the new space initiative during a talk at New York University March 13. (credit: J. Foust)

A look inside the Aldridge Commission

Since President George W. Bush introduced his new space initiative two months ago, one of the biggest criticisms about it is the lack of specific details. The plan as presented by Bush lays out some broad goals and deadlines—shutting down the shuttle program by 2010, returning humans to the Moon by 2020—but since then NASA has provided few additional details regarding how this would be accomplished. This lack of information threatens the plan with paralysis within Congress: last week Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, the chairman of the House Science Committee, and Rep. Bart Gordon, the ranking Democrat on that committee, both said they remained undecided about the plan because they had not gotten enough information about it yet. “As the outlines of the likely fiscal 2005 budget become clearer, my questions about the initiative only become more pressing,” Boehlert said.

One reason why NASA and the Bush Administration have not been more forthcoming about the details of the plan is that the implementation of the initiative is still under study. In the same speech that outlined the plan, Bush also announced the formation of an independent commission that would evaluate how to implement the plan. This commission, formally known as the President’s Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond, is typically referred to in shorthand as the “Aldridge Commission” after its chairman, Edward “Pete” Aldridge. This commission is charged with, by early June, producing a report with its recommendations regarding how the President’s vision should be carried out.

Aldridge is joined on the commission by an all-star team of eight other people from a wide range of backgrounds, from Carly Fiorina, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, to Lester Lyles, a retired Air Force general, to Maria Zuber, an MIT planetary sciences professor. Another member of the commission is Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. On March 13 Tyson discussed the commission and its work before an audience of several dozen people at New York University in an event organized by the New York Space Society, the local chapter of the National Space Society. During the talk Tyson, an exuberant, passionate speaker, offered some interesting insights and tidbits regarding the work of the commission and the challenges the new initiative faces.

Key implementation issues

Tyson stressed in his presentation that the commission’s purpose is to recommend how the plan should be carried out, not whether the plan itself is worthwhile. “We don’t have the power to change the vision,” he said. “The vision is a given. The vision was actually extensively vetted and so that is not our charge. Our charge is to find ways a consensus can be shaped around the vision, and then explore strategies to implement it.”

“The vision is a given. The vision was actually extensively vetted and so that is not our charge. Our charge is to find ways a consensus can be shaped around the vision, and then explore strategies to implement it.”

Tyson did reveal, though, that he also played a role in shaping the vision itself before it was publicly announced and before the commission was created. “I’m particularly connected to that space vision because I worked with the head of NASA for his presentation to the President that led to this space vision,” he said, although he did not elaborate on the nature of his input.

He did note that the commission does not feel that restricted because it has a fairly wide latitude in proposing recommendations. He noted that, for example, the commission could recommend that NASA undertake a human mission to an asteroid after returning to the Moon but before going on to Mars. “Asteroids are not explicitly mentioned in the vision, so that would be an adjustment to it while still maintaining the total scope of the vision,” he said.

The implementation recommendations the committee does make will be at a fairly high level. “We’re not going to say, cancel this mission, add that mission,” he said. “We might say that you’re not spending enough on propulsion, but we’re not going to say to use this propulsion over that.”

Those recommendations will be aligned among four general themes: competitiveness and prosperity, science and technology, management and sustainability, and education and youth. Under those themes the implementation recommendations will cover a broad range of topics, from systems engineering to enabling technology to international cooperation.

Sustainability and bipartisanship

One major issue that the new space initiative faces is sustainability: how do you maintain a long-range program like the President’s plan, with milestones that extend to 2020 and beyond, given the changes in both administrations and Congresses? The commission identified sustainability as perhaps the biggest challenge facing the plan during its first public hearing, and Tyson spent some time during his presentation to address the issue from a couple of different angles.

“My nightmare is that we have a next President who does not want any part of this vision, but still allows the space shuttle to cancel itself out, does not top off the budget, and everything washes down the drain.”

Tyson argued that the plan was realistic because it did not require increasing NASA’s budget any faster than the rate of inflation over the long term. He noted that while NASA’s annual budget peaked in the mid-1960s at about $25 billion in current-year dollars (compared to about $15 billion today), if you take a ten-year running average of the budget, the values change very little. “For any ten-year period you draw here, NASA’s budget has been about the same,” he claimed. “So it is not an argument to say that we will not be able to raise as much money as we did for Apollo. We already have that much money.”

To further illustrate his point, Tyson displayed the famous “layer cake” chart that shows the proposed budgets for major NASA programs through 2020, illustrating how the wedge for the exploration program grows as other programs, notably the space shuttle and space station, are phased out. He admitted, though, that there is a risk that as the shuttle and station programs end, those funds might get moved out of NASA entirely. “My nightmare is that we have a next President who does not want any part of this vision,” he said, “but still allows the space shuttle to cancel itself out, does not top off the budget, and everything washes down the drain.” He said that the commission is “sensitive” to such a possibility, and will try to offer strategies to minimize that possibility.

One of Tyson’s concerns related to this possibility is that the new initiative might become entangled in partisan politics. Already the new initiative has been closely linked to Bush, and thus has come under criticism of Democrats, particularly those running for President. “I’m surprised they would reach out and make that a political issue, especially since space exploration in America has historically been bipartisan,” he said. “The last thing we want out of this mission is for it to become a partisan issue. The moment space exploration becomes partisan, just give up, go home, because space initiatives have longer baselines than political cycles. They can only survive if they’re not partisan.”

Tyson noted that the commission has made some efforts to reach out to Democrats, in particular Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President. He revealed that the commission considered asking him to testify at a public hearing, but backed away out of concerns that the other remaining candidates would demand equal time. “We do know that in the end, knowing that this is put forth by a Republican President, at some point we’re going to have to woo Democratic support,” he said. He said that the commission is considering inviting some unnamed “powerful Democrats” to speak at the commission’s final public hearing in New York in early May.

page 2: Hubble and the initiative >>

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