When organizers at the American Museum of Natural History in New York decided to set up a debate on the future of manned space exploration, President Obama had not yet announced plans to cancel the NASA program designed to carry astronauts to the moon by 2020 and Mars by 2030. That recent development only served to spice up the proceedings at last night’s Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The main theme guiding the night’s proceedings was supposed to be “Where next?” But based on NASA’s recent change of course, much of the night focused on how to kick the human exploration into gear.
Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, was the idealist and dominant personality on the panel, claiming “we’re much closer sending men to Mars now than we were sending someone to the moon in 1961.” He noted that when factoring in inflation, NASA has about the same budget for manned spaceflight as it did during the Apollo years. He encouraged a bold deadline for reaching Mars to motivate current scientists and inspire future ones.
Yet the Apollo comparisons can only go so far. “We don’t have the Cold War infrastructure that helped build Apollo,” said Paul Spudis, the panel’s moon expert. And during the Q&A session, audience member Miles O’Brien (a space blogger and formerly CNN’s science correspondent) plainly stated, “The nostalgia of the Space Race is not coming back. You can’t just recreate that.”
Most of the panel did agree, however, that NASA needs well-defined incremental goals and deadlines. “It’s a fundamental mistake to give NASA $20 billion and no destination,” Spudis said. “If you’re not working toward something, you’ll get nothing.”
Perhaps the necessary motivation can only come from a modern equivalent of the USSR: Would a Chinese mission to set up colonies on Mars, Tyson hypothetically proposed, act as a modern-day Sputnik? Lester Lyles, a retired Air Force general who served on the Augustine commission, downplayed that threat but admitted that militarily, space “is the ultimate high ground.”
The night also featured lively debate over the most logical destination for future astronauts. Spudis touted that recent research has revealed that humans could use materials readily available on the moon’s surface to produce potable water and rocket fuel. Zubrin cited the carbon and nitrogen on Mars, as well as the clear evidence of past liquid water. Cornell astronomer Steven Squyres favors the asteroids because of their low gravity and abundant metallic reserves, although he says we should make the moon our first stop “before going on to more interesting places,” drawing a glare from Spudis.
Noticeably absent from the discussion was a voice opposing manned exploration, which historically has taken up two-thirds of NASA’s budget despite getting overshadowed by robotic missions such as Voyager and Cassini. Squyres, who is in charge of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars, would have seemed to have been the logical person to make that argument, but he said we can’t send out humans into space soon enough. “Humans could do in one week what the rovers have done in six years,” he said.
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Image: NASA / JPL