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Whitesides and Zubrin
George Whitesides of the NSS makes a point about the Aldridge Commission report during the Mars Society conference in Chiago August 22 as Robert Zubrin looks on. (credit: J. Foust)

Debating the Aldridge report

When the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy (often called the President’s Commission on Moon, Mars, and Beyond, or simply the Aldridge Commission after chairman Pete Aldridge) issued its final report in mid-June, it won seemingly unanimous praise from the small but often contentious space advocacy community. The Space Foundation announced it “fully supports” the Commission’s recommendations, and challenged NASA to implement them. The National Space Society (NSS) described the report as “a plan that will transform NASA and lead the way to a spacefaring civilization.” Even the Space Frontier Foundation, while quibbling with some of the language in the report, called it a “rhetorical breakthrough” and “a huge step forward in human space exploration.”

Language like this from a vast spectrum of space interest organizations would leave one to conclude that every major advocacy organization has signed on to the Commission’s report. One significant exception, though, is the Mars Society and its outspoken founder, Robert Zubrin, who believes that the report did not do nearly enough to advance the cause of human exploration of the Red Planet. At the Mars Society’s annual conference earlier this month in Chicago, Zubrin and NSS executive director George Whitesides debated the benefits and flaws of the Aldridge Commission’s report, as well as the near- and long-term significance the report will have on shaping space policy.

A big difference

Whitesides, speaking before an audience of a couple hundred people during a plenary session of the conference on the morning of August 22, lauded the report. “I’m going to set out with the proposition that the report does make a big difference,” he said. “It is arguably one of the most advanced, thoughtful documents that supports the goal of a spacefaring civilization as a policy of the government that we’ve seen in a very long time.”

“It is arguably one of the most advanced, thoughtful documents that supports the goal of a spacefaring civilization as a policy of the government that we’ve seen in a very long time,” said Whitesides.

A key aspect of the Aldridge report was its discussion of the role of the private sector and its surprisingly strong endorsement of prizes. “This is a pretty amazing thing to see in an actual document of the US government these three things: prizes, tax incentives, and property rights,” he said. “These guys listened to some of what the advocacy community was saying.”

That emphasis on the private sector, Whitesides said, opens up NASA to focus on exploration. “One of the most important lines in the whole report is that ‘NASA’s role must be limited to only those areas where there is irrefutable demonstration that only government can performed the proposed activity,’” he said, quoting from the report. “What this does is free up NASA from doing things that other people can do better. I think a lot of people in this room believe that NASA should be an exploration agency. That is the unique role played by NASA.”

“Something fundamental happened with the Aldridge Commission, and that is our ideas were finally listened to,” he concluded. “It may be just a toehold into the official world of government space policy, but it’s a toehold.”

Zubrin’s dissenting opinion

Zubrin, rarely one to mince words on any occasion, made it clear how he felt about the report after Whitesides had praised it. “This is a clinical example of some of the worst thinking that we’ve seen,” he said, “and how a government commission like this can screw up.”

The first problem with the report was with the composition of the Aldridge Commission itself. Zubrin described the commission as a group of “suits” and scientists with little or no interest in the human exploration of space. “It included no astronautical engineers, in fact, it included no engineers at all,” he said. “It included no exobiologists, no one interested in the search for life on Mars or in human missions to Mars.”

“This is a clinical example of some of the worst thinking that we’ve seen,” Zubrin said, “and how a government commission like this can screw up.”

This, Zubrin claimed, led to “massive problems” with the final report. He criticized the commission for coming up with a set of goals for the exploration program that included topics such as studies of the Big Bang and comparative planetology but omitted a clear statement about searching for life on Mars. “They completely ignored the key central task that guides human space exploration,” searching for life on Mars, he said. “They were completely anti-intellectual.”

Zubrin leveled his sharpest criticism at one member of the Aldridge Commission, Paul Spudis, a lunar scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab. On several occasions during the session Zubrin referred to him not by name but instead as a “lunar charlatan”. The reason for the use of the term “charlatan”, Zubrin explained, was that he believed that Spudis invited a scientist to testify at one of the commission hearings that “the best way to look for life on Mars was on the Moon because SNC meteorites from Mars would have landed on the Moon.” While Zubrin didn’t mention this scientist by name, he appeared to be referring to John Delano, a geologist from the University of Albany, who testified before the commission in New York in May that “the Moon may also contain pieces of other planets that can serve as Rosetta stones for our better understanding of the geochemical origin and evolution of planets throughout our solar system.”

“To exclude any bona fide exobiologists from testifying and instead bring in a person to argue that the place to do Mars exobiology is on the Moon is over the top,” Zubrin claimed, although Delano in fact did not go that far in his public testimony. “To be respected in intellectual debate you have to let the other side present their point of view. He [Spudis] essentially censored that information.”

Zubrin also criticized the commission for adopting what he felt was the wrong approach to meeting the President’s goals outlined in January. In the Apollo era, he said, NASA was given a driving goal and then had to develop the hardware needed to achieve that goal within a set schedule. In the shuttle era, by contrast, NASA has tried to fit existing hardware, as well as what aerospace companies wanted to develop, into a plan that lacked a significant goal or schedule. Zubrin said he feared the commission is taking the shuttle route, in part because of the 17 technologies the report concludes are necessary to achieve the goals of the exploration plan. Most of those technologies, he believes, are not needed to send humans to the Moon or Mars. “What they did is go around to a bunch of NASA centers” and saw what technology programs people were working on there. “You’re never going to get to Mars that way. It’s just a way of wasting money.”

The commission, Zubrin noted, included no engineers or exobiologists, “no one interested in the search for life on Mars or in human missions to Mars.”

He called into question the recommendation that the NASA field centers be converted into federally-funded research and development centers (FFRDCs), as JPL already is. He noted that what sets JPL apart is not that it is an FFRDC—other such centers, such as the Energy Department’s labs, are less productive—but that the center has benefited from strong leadership by people with scientific backgrounds. He likened it to the situation during World War Two, when the leaders of the key research programs all had strong scientific credentials, rather than people plucked out of management school without any background on the topic—a veiled reference, some saw, to current NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe.

Zubrin revealed that he had an opportunity to provide input to the Aldridge Commission by testifying but turned them down. He said the commission asked him to testify “on the condition that I not address any programmatic and technical issues.” Realizing how unlikely a condition that was, the audience roared in laughter for several moments. Instead, he said, the commission wanted to know how the Mars Society would support the vision. “Frankly, that was ridiculous,” he said, and he turned down their offer.

In his response to Zubrin’s comments, Whitesides acknowledged that the report was not perfect, but overall still was beneficial. “We probably all feel that some parts of it can go off and die,” he said. “However, it is inappropriate and not useful from our perspective as a group of advocates to dismiss this report. We need to pluck out the kernels that are good, and they are there.”

Zubrin was not opposed to trying to salvage something from the report, as he put it in his colorful way. “If the devil can quote from Scripture for his purpose, then good people can quote from satanic literature.”

The fate of the report

Zubrin’s harsh critique of the Aldridge Commission was the first time he had criticized it openly in a public audience. “I did not attack it publicly because the report has been disappearing on its own,” he said, “and to attack it publicly would have been viewed as attacking the President’s bandwagon.” Several times during the debate he reiterated his position that the report will have no lasting impact on NASA or space exploration in general. “The good thing about the report was that it was so bad it was instantly forgotten,” he noted.

“It is inappropriate and not useful from our perspective as a group of advocates to dismiss this report,” said Whitesides. “We need to pluck out the kernels that are good, and they are there.”

Is that an accurate assessment? In some respects it does appear that the commission’s report has had little impact to date. While Aldridge and other commission members testified before a Senate subcommittee the day after the report’s release, a similar House hearing scheduled for June 23 was postponed at the last minute and has not been rescheduled. Little, if any, action has taken place within Congress or the Administration to enact the commission’s recommendations. Even the commission’s web site,, which hosted transcripts and video from the various public hearings, among other documents, has been taken down: the web site now takes you to a NASA press release where O’Keefe thanks the commission for its work, and offers a link to a NASA web site where the commission’s report is available along with many other NASA documents about the exploration vision. (Fortunately, a mirror site for exists.)

However, it has also been less than two and a half months since the commission’s report has been released, which is rarely enough time even under the best of circumstances in Washington to get much progress on a report. Combine it with summer, when the pace of activity naturally slows in the capital, along with a Presidential election year, and it’s little surprise that very little has happened with the commission’s report. Yet there are signs of progress: earlier this month NASA announced that it had issued Requests for Information (RFIs) regarding recommendations in the commission’s report that NASA more closely work with industry.

Zubrin, ironically, contrasted the Aldridge Commission report with the report by the National Commission on Space published in 1986. The latter report, he said, was “vastly more interesting and inspiring” than the Aldridge report. However, while that report was gorgeously illustrated and filled with grandiose visions, it did little or nothing to change the space agency and advance the cause of a spacefaring civilization. Other reports have come and gone over the years, usually doing nothing to change the status quo within NASA and overall space efforts. Being interesting and inspiring is not enough if the report’s proposals cannot be realistically implemented. For the Aldridge Commission’s report, the jury may still be out on its fate.


ISPCS 2015