The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

CEV illustration
The long development time of the CEV is just one of the issues scientists and others have with the exploration vision. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Scientists and the exploration vision

In the five months since President Bush unveiled a new space initiative that has since become officially known as the Vision for Space Exploration, there has been endless discussion about and debate over its merits. That debate will likely intensify later this week when the President’s Commission on Moon, Mars, and Beyond (also known as the Aldridge Commission after its chairman, Pete Aldridge), issues its long-awaited final report on how to implement the vision. The various organizations and constituencies involved with or otherwise affected by the exploration plan are sure to make themselves heard all summer long.

The scientific community, in particular astronomers and planetary scientists, has had a mixed response to the vision. Less than a year after NASA was boldly promoting its Beyond Einstein program of astronomy missions, that program and other efforts to study gravitational waves, dark matter, and other astronomical phenomena have been delayed, in some cases indefinitely. Even planetary scientists, who have much to gain by a renewed exploration of the Moon and continued missions to Mars, are worried that the exploration vision could shortchange missions to other solar system destinations.

To address how the scientific community feels about the exploration plan, the organization Women in Aerospace put together a forum on Capitol Hill May 26 on this topic. A panel of scientists and other officials, including a former astronaut and former NASA associate administrator, had generally positive impressions of the Vision for Space Exploration. However, they did express some concerns with the plan, as well as some suggestions about how to improve the vision.

Too destination-specific?

While NASA has gone to considerable lengths in recent months to promote the vision as an all-encompassing plan for space exploration, the plan is still widely seen as solely a “Moon-Mars” plan: return humans to the Moon by 2020 and send humans to Mars some time after that. That perceived emphasis on the Moon and Mars has raised apprehension among some scientists that this emphasis will result in lost opportunities elsewhere.

“I worry that we’re still thinking like Apollo, and that the destination will become the objective, and the dates will become the measure,” Huntress said. “That’s death. If that happens, this policy will never be implemented successfully.”

“I’m a little concerned in that in getting back to the Moon and going on to Mars we may lose a lot of science that NASA does really well now,” said Melissa McGrath, a planetary astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. She specifically mentioned studies of the outer solar system, as well as the decision to cancel the final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, as key areas of concern. “I hope that, in pursuing this vision, we won’t lose out on a lot of the other science that NASA has been tremendously successful at accomplishing.”

Both McGrath and Mark Sykes, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, stated that astronomy programs could fall victim to the exploration vision. “There is certainly concern in the astrophysics community regarding to what extent NASA may be abandoning these kinds of projects,” said Sykes. However, McGrath noted that the Apollo program created a wave of robotic exploration of the solar system. “I’m optimistic that this will happen again with the new vision,” she said.

“NASA’s rhetoric and preliminary planning seems to me to indicate that the agency is more or less on a strict Moon-Mars path, when in fact the policy should be interpreted as a directive from the President to establish really a highway system to the entire solar system for both robotic and human vehicles,” said Wesley Huntress, former associate administrator for space sciences at NASA and currently director of the Geophysical Institute at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Huntress added he was concerned that NASA is too focused on specific destinations and deadlines that could lead to the failure of the overall vision. “I worry that we’re still thinking like Apollo, and that the destination will become the objective, and the dates will become the measure,” he said. “That’s death. If that happens, this policy will never be implemented successfully. It’s the goals that are important, not the destinations. The destinations follow from the goals, and they must be flexible if this is to be affordable. If you focus on specific dates, then they will drive the costs out of balance. That’s a classic formula for cost overruns.”

While the vision promotes science and exploration, some think that this scope may be too narrow. “The rationale offered by the President seems to be a little bit narrow, focusing strictly on scientific and esoteric reasons why we should be exploring the solar system,” said Tom Jones, a former astronaut who earned a doctorate in planetary science from the University of Arizona before joining the astronaut corps. “There’s a neglect of the commercial possibilities involved, other than the spinoffs we all hear about. While science is a primary driver for this vision, it’s insufficient to sustain exploration on the decades-long scale we’re talking about.”

The long-term nature of the plan, regardless of a specific deadline, also disturbs scientists who fear working for years on a project that is eventually canceled. “I think people are worrying that they may put a lot of effort into something that won’t necessarily pan out,” said Faith Vilas, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “We feel a little bit like Charlie Brown running to kick a football that Lucy is holding in place, and at the last second she’s going to pull it away.”

“We feel a little bit like Charlie Brown running to kick a football that Lucy is holding in place, and at the last second she’s going to pull it away,” said Vilas

Those worries are linked, in part, to other concerns about the politicization of the plan, and what will happen after President Bush leaves office. “This policy will always have Bush’s name on it,” said Huntress. “It’s interesting that we don’t call the Space Act Eisenhower’s policy, even though this policy is just as visionary as the Space Act.” He added, though, that the policy as written looks to be independent of administrations. “I could see the last administration writing something like this, had it chosen to do so.”

Tweaking the vision

Despite these issues, the panelists were largely in favor of the exploration vision in general. However, to address some of these concerns, as well as other perceived problems with the exploration plan, some offered some suggestions on how to alter the vision.

Huntress had two general recommendations for the plan. The first called for NASA to look outside the agency for exploration architectures. “The agency should do everything possible to solicit and engage as many innovative ideas as they can from individuals and organizations throughout the nation and other countries before drawing the roads on the map of the solar system and specifying the vehicles that are going to travel on them,” he said. This, he feels, is a “necessary step towards gaining ownership of this enterprise” among more than just NASA and its major contractors today.

His second, and arguably more difficult, recommendation is for Congress to view the exploration plan as a long-term investment in the nation. “The current tendency is for Congress to focus on total cost,” he said. “There’s no such number. This number is incalculable for the very same reason that no one could have provided such a number when Eisenhower initiated the US interstate highway system in the 1950s.” The correct approach, he said, is to determine how much money is needed each year “to sustain real progress” towards the goals of the policy.

Jones believes that NASA and the administration need to make clear that the vision should include missions to locations other than just the Moon and Mars. “I’d like to see us visit other destinations in the solar system, like the near Earth asteroids or the Sun-Earth L2 point, where we can do intriguing work with humans and robots,” he said. “We need to have goals commensurate with the risk that is involved” with human spaceflight.

Delving into the implementation of the plan, Jones raised some issues with the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). “The problem with the CEV is that it is all things to all people,” he said. “It’s a space station rescue lifeboat, a conduit to Earth orbit, and then it’s going to go to the Moon and perhaps land there, and go on to Mars. It’s very difficult to see how that can be done affordably.” In addition, he noted that there will be a gap between the retirement of the space shuttle circa 2010 and the first manned CEV flight, currently planned for 2014.

“The problem with the CEV is that it is all things to all people,” Jones said. “It’s very difficult to see how that can be done affordably.”

Jones believes that the CEV program should be accelerated. “We ought to fast-track the CEV and not wait until 2014 to fly it with people aboard,” he said. “It ought to be out there succeeding the shuttle as soon as we can possibly get it to do that.” One way to do that, he suggested, would be to put a small human-rated capsule on top of a shuttle solid rocket booster for missions to low Earth orbit and the ISS in particular. “We can get that done in five years,” he said. “With that kind of development, we have no gap in access, we wouldn’t have to rely on the Soyuz to get to the space station. It would also jumpstart a lot of these other missions the President has planned.”

There was, though, widespread agreement that exploration of the solar system was a job for humans as well as robots. “There is a role for humans, but the goal for humans must be a human goal,” said Sykes. “That is, to take the next step and perhaps focusing on establishing a permanent, self-sustaining human population in space.”

“In the end, I believe that human beings are capable of doing great things,” said Vilas. “I think it’s in our nature to explore and expand, and I think that we should expand into space. I hope it is the United States that does it.”