Lawmakers Express Concerns Over Bush Initiative

Image credit: NASA
Expert witnesses before the House Science Committee today endorsed the broad outlines of the President’s space exploration initiative, but called for changes and refinements in some of its elements.

Specifically, several witnesses criticized the reductions proposed in NASA’s space science programs to pay for the initiative, and they urged NASA to come up with new ways to get fresh ideas into the program, including from entrepreneurs and the public. The witnesses also agreed that understanding and counteracting the effects of radiation in space on human physiology is one of the most serious hurdles to sustained human activity in space. Two of the witnesses argued that the moon might not be a sensible interim goal for the exploration initiative, but others endorsed the approach outlined in the President’s plan – first the space station, then the moon and then Mars.

Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Ranking Democrat Bart Gordon (D-TN) both emphasized their continuing concerns with the potential costs.

“I think all I need to say about my views this morning is to reiterate that I remain undecided about whether and how to undertake the exploration program. I would add that, as the outlines of the likely fiscal 2005 budget become clearer, my questions about the initiative only become more pressing,” said Boehlert.

Boehlert added that the fiscal 2005 NASA budget proposal needed to be reviewed in the context of the entire federal science budget. “My strong feeling, and I think it’s shared by others on this Committee, is that a society unwilling to invest in science and technology is a society willing to write its own economic obituary. So we’re looking in the broad category of science?and then NASA is a subset of that, and a subset of our investment in NASA is human versus unmanned. And so we’re trying to get answers to some very specific questions involving cost and risk – answers that are not easy to come up with.”

Gordon stated, “I support the goal of exploring our solar system. However, until I am convinced that the President’s plan to achieve that goal is credible and responsible, I am not prepared to give that plan my support.”

Witnesses had differing views on the costs. Dr. Michael Griffin, President and Chief Operating Officer of In-Q-Tel, said budget estimates of the cost of the President’s initiative – “$50-55 billion to rebuild a basic Apollo-like capability by 2020” – were overestimated. He noted this estimate was considerably higher than a 1991-1993 lunar outpost study he was involved in of which top-level cost estimates were about $30 billion in 2003 dollars, or 40 percent less than the President’s proposal.

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) asked Dr. Griffin what he would “predict it would take us to go to the moon and then to go Mars?” Griffin answered, “I believe that the first expeditions to Mars should be accomplishable within an amount of funding approximately equal to what we spent on Apollo?in today’s dollars, about $130 billion. Certainly that would envelope it. I believe that it should be possible to return to the moon for in the neighborhood of $30 billion in today’s dollars. And those are both fairly comfortable amounts.” Griffin said those missions could “easily” be accomplished within those dollar amounts in 10 years, but “you would have to decide to do it and to allocate the money, but I think that’s the level of resource commitment that’s required.”

Dr. Donna Shirley, Director of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle and former Manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said she thought Dr. Griffin’s numbers were “pretty good, provided that we do the stepping-stone to the moon and we don’t stop there and we don’t start building infrastructure and don’t start doing what we did with Space Station. If we go to the moon and then right on to Mars?those are not bad numbers.”

“I do not have the figures to either agree or disagree with Dr. Griffin’s. I do however fear that once committing to go back to the moon we’ll never make it to Mars,” added Dr. Laurence Young, Apollo Program Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Founding Director of the National Space Biomedical Research Institute in Houston.

Dr. Lennard Fisk, Chair of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board urged policymakers to consider a “learn-as-you-go” approach. “Deciding on these answers – how fast you go back to the moon, how much does it cost you, whether you go to Mars, is going to depend on each incremental step that we go?the moon appeals to me for the simple reason that we have an opportunity to go there and try out some of our technical solutions on the way and decide whether they’re going to be adequate?The cost of this thing should not – I don’t think we should try to find a number. We should try and find a number of what are the steps that we should take on which we learn something and we adjust our program to take the next logical step – incrementally walk through this thing,” said Dr. Fisk.

Mr. Norman Augustine, chair of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program and former Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin, expressed his strong support for such a “stepwise” approach over such a long-term program. “If, for example, we are to pursue an objective that requires twenty years to achieve, that then implies we must have the sustained support of five consecutive presidential administrations, ten consecutive Congresses and twenty consecutive federal budgets – a feat the difficulty of which seems to eclipse any technological challenge space exploration may engender. This consideration argues for a major space undertaking that could be accomplished in step-wise milestones, each contributing to a uniting long-term goal?It is this consideration which justifies a mission to Mars with an initial step to the moon – as philosophically opposed to a return to the moon with a potential visit to Mars.”

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Ranking Member Nick Lampson (D-TX) noted, “Mr. Augustine states in his written testimony that ‘it would be a grave mistake to try to pursue a space program ‘on the cheap.’ To do so is in my opinion an invitation to disaster.’ I could not agree more.”

Young discussed one of the most difficult challenges facing human missions to the moon or Mars: the impact of spending long periods in space on the human body. Dr. Young stated, “Overall, the current suite of exercise countermeasures, relying primarily on treadmill, resistance devices, is unreliable, time consuming, and inadequate by itself to assure the sufficient physical conditioning of astronauts going to Mars. Radiation remains the most vexing and difficult issue.” He discussed some research being conducted, but noted much remains to be done. He also argued, “The proposal to limit [International Space Station] research to the impact of space on human health and to end support for other important microgravity science and space technology seems short-sighted.”

Shirley also expressed several concerns with the President’s plan, noting, “The costs of the program are difficult to evaluate but there appear to be several strategic flaws, including a possibly premature phase-out of the shuttle and premature focus on a specific approach. There is no real information on which to judge the impact of exploration on other NASA missions.” She recommended that the Administration revisit the nation’s space exploration goals and suggested a process including workshops and studies that would bring in a wide-range of new stakeholders and fully engage the public in the effort.

Original Source: House Committee on Science News Release