Video: Back to the moon

By Senior space writer
updated 11/23/2004 6:13:18 PM ET 2004-11-23T23:13:18

A new report released by an American Physical Society's Special Committee on NASA Funding for Astrophysics has questioned the space agency’s "moon, Mars and beyond" initiative. The society's assessment warns that the cost of overcoming technological challenges to make the plan a reality could far exceed budgetary projections and that numerous approved science programs could be jeopardized.

“Returning Americans to the moon and landing on Mars would have a powerful symbolic significance,” the APS report observes, “but it would constitute only a small step in the advancement of knowledge, since much will already be known from exploration with the robotic precursor probes that are necessary to guarantee the safety of any human mission.”

The APS report was written by a 10-person committee, chaired by Joel Primack, a professor of physics and a leading astrophysicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

According to their Web site, the American Physical Society is the world's largest professional body of physicists, representing more than 45,000 physicists in academia and industry in the United States and internationally. It has offices in College Park, Md., and Ridge, N.Y.

Negative ripple effect
To underscore their concerns, the APS reports that in the wake of the Moon-Mars initiative, NASA’s “readjusted priorities” have already created a negative ripple effect for space science: For instance, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, has been delayed a year while Constellation X has been delayed until at least 2016.

LISA will use an array of free-flying satellites to carefully measure the baseline expansion or contraction due to the passage of gravitational waves, while Constellation X will perform X-ray spectroscopic studies of some of the most extreme objects in the Universe.

Both instruments received high priority from the astronomy community for construction in the current decade.

Furthermore, other scientific missions have been delayed indefinitely, the APS report notes. Among them the Einstein Probes, which are moderate-sized missions aimed at determining the nature of dark energy, observing regions near black holes, and studying the imprint of cosmic inflation on the cosmic background radiation. NASA’s Explorer program is another activity that is being affected by the moon-Mars program.

Ill-defined initiative?
On Jan. 14, President Bush announced a new vision for NASA that incorporated a human return to the moon by 2020, follow-on exploration of Mars and other destinations.

In APS' view, the impact of the president’s proposal on scientific programs within NASA and other agencies “could be substantial and must be assessed carefully,” the report stresses.

Key findings noted in the APS report are:

  • Human exploration has a role to play in NASA, but it must be within a balanced program in which allocated resources span the full spectrum of the space sciences and take advantage of emerging scientific opportunities and synergies.
  • The recent spectacular successes of NASA's space telescopes and the Mars rovers amply demonstrate that we can use robotic means to address many important scientific questions.
  • Astronauts on Mars might achieve greater scientific returns than robotic missions, but they would come at such a high cost that scientific grounds alone would probably not provide a sufficient rationale.
  • The scope of the moon-Mars initiative has not been well-defined, its long-term cost has not been adequately addressed, and no budgetary mechanisms have been established to avoid causing major irreparable damage to the agency's scientific program.
  • To accommodate the moon-Mars initiative, NASA has already begun to reprogram its existing budget, resulting in indefinite postponement or serious delay of science programs that were assigned high priority by the National Academy of Sciences' decadal studies.
  • In addition to affecting NASA's internal priorities, an ill-defined moon-Mars initiative of very large scale could harm programs in other science agencies.

Budgetary impact
In wrapping up its findings, the APS report makes a trio of recommendations regarding the moon-Mars initiative.

First of all, NASA should continue to be guided by the priorities recommended in the National Academy of Sciences decadal studies in formulating its science programs. The NAS should also review the moon-Mars proposal in regards to its science impact before the United States commits to the initiative.

Similarly, the APS report recommends that the Government Accountability Office should estimate the budgetary impact prior to the United States green-lighting the Moon-Mars proposal.

Critical reaction
The APS report has met with some disapproval. 

One critic is former U.S. Rep. Robert Walker, a member of the Presidential Commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy in 2004 — also known as the Aldridge Commission.

“The APS report ignores the contention of the Aldridge Commission that the Moon to Mars and Beyond Vision is enabled by science and enables science. It is the present mission at NASA that lacks direction and focus. The Moon to Mars and Beyond program is an attempt to refocus NASA in a positive way,” Walker told Space.com.

“The APS report is a defense of the NASA that 'has been' rather than an effort to create the NASA that ‘can be,’” Walker concluded.

Robot versus human explorers
The strong pro-robot message of the APS stirred up a response from Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society.

“The APS report is false on its face,” Zubrin told Space.com. “In fact, NASA's most cost-effective science program to date has been the Hubble Space Telescope, a human spaceflight activity. Hubble may have cost twice the Galileo mission to Jupiter, but it has returned more than 100 times the science. This is proof that when human spaceflight activities are properly targeted, they can achieve far more science return than is possible with robotic means.”

One of the central questions confronting science today is the origin of life, and the uniqueness or generality of the processes that allow it, Zubrin said.

“The answers in this matter can best be found by sending human explorers to Mars, who can search the environment for fossils and set up drilling rigs to reach liquid ground water where extant life may yet exist. By sampling such life and examining its biochemistry we can find out fundamental truths about the nature of life in the universe. This can only be done by human explorers,” Zubrin explained.

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