The Space Debate: When Will NASA Astronauts Explore the Moon, Mars, and Beyond?

By Andrew Grant | March 16, 2010 1:44 pm

solar-systemWhen 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.

Related Content:
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80beats: Obama’s NASA Budget: So Long, Moon Missions; Hello, Private Spaceflight
80beats: Tons of Water Ice at the Moon’s North Pole Could Sustain a Lunar Base
80beats: Buzz Aldrin Speaks Out: Forget the Moon, Let’s Head to Mars
80beats: Photo Gallery: The Best Views From Spirit’s 6 Years of Mars Roving

Image: NASA / JPL

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Events, Space & Aliens Therefrom
  • Rod

    The question that has to asked is, how to you want to develop human space flight.
    Like Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs.
    Or, like the internet.
    Both were started roughly the same time. Look at where both are now.

    From an engineers point of view, I think the usadmin new budget is a breath of fresh air.
    The Constellation program is a 21st century launch system built on 20th century technology.
    Top down development is dead.

  • http://www.spaceprogress.com AndyW

    NASA must excite the public by setting out a clear, exciting and valuable 20 year timeline of exploration goals along those in the Augustine report. Keep hitting new goals every five years. This approach gives researchers new data, shakes out systems, pushes technology forward and keeps the public engaged. Do exciting and valuable work while building up capability towards the Mars landing goal. Early on, combine a crew with tele-robotics (orbit the moon, run a remote polar sample return rover). The best political and practical bet for a near-term budget increase is to push for the accelerated development of Heavy Lift (ARES V lite specs). Keep the Orion Crew Vehicle going. Further optimize CEV for Deep Space (exploration) use only. There are a million applications for a heavy lifter that can be sold as practical reasons for adding some near term funds. The heavy lifter lets you hoist aloft new propulsion and other tech for testing. The technology development the budget talks about really applies to the future Deep Space Cruise Vehicle. Yes, some R&D may help a bit with a launch vehicle, but most of the real R&D payoff is going to come from landers, probes, habs and deep space propulsion systems. We dont need to wait on the lifter for that research. This plan also keeps a good portion of at risk jobs and in house capability going. In case commercial fails to live up to its human-rated promise, the US will still have options. An outline of how to clearly present this to congress and the public is on the spaceprogress.com website.

  • JMW

    The problem is that the public will not accept huge expenditures (and any amount will be “huge”) in the current environment. There’s no simple motivation to be going to the Moon or Mars, as there was during the Cold War, and that’s what is missing from the current environment.

  • Carl

    @JMW,

    I respectfully disagree. The public will accept a clearly articulated plan with tangible goals and the potential for opening up new resources for businesses to exploit. It’s all about the return on investment and how the message is presented. For example, how much would Americans spend if they found there was an abundant resource on the moon that could replace petroleum as a source of fuel? What about on an asteroid?

  • Brian Too

    I wonder about manned missions generally. Once we got to the Moon and the space race was over, there was little there to keep going back for. The Moon is a dead place where not much happens. It may be scientifically interesting, but it won’t hold the interest of the average citizen, that’s for sure.

    Mars is going to have the same issue I think. Yeah, sure, it has ice and an atmosphere, and there’s more going on than the Moon has. However for most people it’s just a giant desert, it’s extremely cold and you can’t breathe the air. Perhaps some Martian bacteria live there but again, that’s mainly interesting to scientists and other small-ish groups of people. You’ll have a tough time cost justifying a second trip to a sceptical public.

    Right now the exploration missions work from a PR perspective because they are robotic missions, don’t cost a fortune (compared to manned spaceflight), and really they tend to visit a lot of places and just hit the highlights.

    The exception would be the long duration missions, but the public only hears about those periodically anyways.

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