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New mission urged for NASA



Submitted by Arthur - N1ORC
Previous permission granted by Houston Chronicle

New mission urged for NASA: Be bold, go farther, do more
By TONY FREEMANTLE and MIKE TOLSON
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle


Dangling by a steel thread hundreds of feet down a sheer, mile-high
cliff, the geologist cuts a lonely figure against the broad expanse of
rock. But she is far from alone. 

Nearby are dozens of other scientists in the early stages of sample
collecting and experimentation. It is only three days since the team
landed on Mars, so excitement is still high. A drilling crew is getting
ready to bring up a core sample several miles away. Dare anyone hope
they strike water, the source of life? 

The small army of men and women has been brought to the Red Planet on
the solar system's first interplanetary flotilla -- 10 ships from Earth,
assembled in orbit, that together comprise the advance team for the
human conquest of space. Every astronaut is an experienced hand, having
logged at least six months at a lunar base. 

This is all science fiction, of course, but not the work of any sci-fi
pulp novelist. In the early 1950s, as rockets were beginning to pierce
the frontier of space, a team from the fledgling fields of astronautics
and space science sketched out an elaborate plan for exploration in
Collier's magazine. The plan, culminating in the expedition to Mars, was
plausible and, to a word, ambitious. 

Far too ambitious, ensuing years would prove. The technological hurdles
and physical hazards were greater than the scientists could know. But
equally so was the political resistance that awaited them, impossible to
calculate when a space program was barely on Washington's radar. 

Human space travel, as it turned out, was hard to engineer and even
harder to pay for. A simple truth emerged. What we might accomplish
depends on fresh insight, clever solutions and the mastery of new
materials. What we will accomplish depends on political resolve. 

In the wake of Columbia's loss, NASA faces a playing field changed by
dissatisfaction over its choice of destination. The voices are not loud,
but they are consistent. Do something more, they say. Go somewhere else.


And they do not belong to the same old band of space zealots. 



Unusual boosters

"Right now, the vision is we're going to fully man the space station,"
said U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land. "I don't see
that as a vision. We need to go beyond that, go back to the moon or
Mars. The American people need a vision and need someone to lead them in
coming up with that vision." 

To go beyond -- the notion seems odd when suggested by an influential
congressman. For more than 30 years Congress has discouraged any
thinking of a place for humans beyond Earth orbit. It did approve big
programs, though as much for political logic as scientific, and even
then often grudgingly. Now its space-fluent members challenge the wisdom
of risking so much for so little. 

"We've tried to have a space program on the cheap," said U.S. Rep. Joe
Barton, R-Ennis. "It's not NASA's fault that after we went to the moon
we de-prioritized the space budget. It's Congress' fault and the past
presidents' fault." 

Barton, who sits on the House Science Committee and its space-related
subcommittee, suggests permanently grounding the space shuttle,
hurriedly building a replacement, finishing the space station and,
perhaps most important, getting the president involved in crafting a
master plan. 

"President Bush should speak to the American people directly," Barton
said. "He should challenge the country, challenge the scientists. The
president is the president for a reason. People look to him for
leadership." 

There is nothing written anywhere that tells the nation's space agency
precisely what it must do. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of
1958, which gave the agency its name and its purpose, issued
instructions only in the broadest strokes: Expand human knowledge,
develop and operate space vehicles, preserve American pre-eminence in
aeronautics and space. 

It fell to political leaders and NASA officials to set goals and
organize a plan. Competition with the Soviet Union gave the space
program an immediate purpose and powerful support in Congress in the
1960s. Today the mission is scientific. Showing up the Russians proved
to be a far easier sell than the nobler pursuit of science's greatest
question: Is there life beyond our planet? 

"I tried to get conversation out of some people at the White House for
exploratory technology and demonstration programs for a Mars campaign,"
said a congressional staffer who works with one of the science
committees. "There was no interest. They are so quiet on this question.
I assume that's because they've been told to shut up." 



Tied down to orbit

It may be that no one had to tell them. Since 1996, the official
National Space Policy set by the White House has prohibited NASA from
spending significant money on a human mission beyond Earth orbit until
the space station is complete. 

The ban was put in place by executive order amid frustration over
spiraling space station costs. Bush could lift it with the stroke of a
pen, but he has shown no such inclination. His Office of Science and
Technology Policy did not respond to repeated requests by the Chronicle
for someone to explain White House views on space exploration. 

Like most policy matters, space initiatives start with the president.
Only once since John Kennedy's Apollo program has one proposed a
comprehensive plan for human exploration. In 1989, on the anniversary of
the first lunar landing, the first President Bush tried to make amends
for the neglect of previous administrations by announcing a bold plan
for human exploration over the next few decades. 

"What was once improbable," Bush said, "is now inevitable." 

The elder Bush would leave it to his National Space Council to come up
with precise dates for lunar bases and Mars trips and such. When asked
about it three weeks later, Vice President Dan Quayle, the nominal head
of the council, was enthusiastic about going to Mars, which he compared
favorably to Earth. 

"Mars is essentially in the same orbit," Quayle said in one of his most
remembered misstatements. "Mars is somewhat the same distance from the
sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are
canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is
oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe." 

With that embarrassing endorsement, it was easy for Congress to doubt
the seriousness of the idea. More damaging was a NASA cost estimate of
$450 billion. Space advocates countered with a much cheaper plan of
their own. But in the end Congress voted not to fund the so-called Space
Exploration Initiative. 

Twenty years earlier, NASA's leaders were heartbroken when Congress and
President Nixon stiff-armed their broad plan for exploration. This time
they did not seem to mind. Their plate was filled with shuttle and
station. Occasional shuttle missions, such as those that launched and
repaired the remarkable Hubble Space Telescope, got serious press
coverage. But mostly the human space program went forward in relative
obscurity, as it had before the Challenger disaster. 

All but unnoticed was a pair of reports in 1990 and '91 that called for
more ambitious human space exploration. The larger of the two, the
Augustine Commission, offered two main themes: Mission to Planet Earth
and Mission from Planet Earth. The former, with an emphasis on
environmental measurements made possible by observation satellites, was
incorporated fully into NASA strategy. The second, with its references
to lunar bases and a Mars mission, is evident today only in a smaller
space station and continued robotic probes. 

"We have been doing what the Mediterranean peoples once did -- coastal
sailing," said Bruce Murray, co-founder of the Planetary Society, a
space advocacy group, and a former director of NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory. "The furthest we have been is 2 1/2 days away. Going to the
moon is like going to Crete. The next step is the big step." 

And it is far from inevitable. 



Limit to exploration

The destination for humans in space is limited. The moon, Mars or some
point in between -- be it an asteroid or a spot where scientists would
like to install a scientific outpost -- likely would stretch the limit
of foreseeable technology. Even those are not doable without significant
advances and a lot more money devoted to the task. NASA has struggled to
maintain even a flat budget over the last 10 years, and its percentage
of the federal budget has steadily slipped. 

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, a pragmatic budget cruncher before
being dispatched to the space agency, argues that conversations about
big steps in space are academic until some serious problems are
overcome. Some involve astronaut health, such as radiation exposure,
physical debilitation and psychological endurance. Others have to do
with hardware. Any spacecraft would need more onboard power and
propulsion. 

"The reality of it is until we do this, even if we converge on (a
destination), we're just talking about it rather than actually doing
it," O'Keefe said. 

Aspirations for the human program should be technology-driven, he said.
Learn how to beat the health problems by doing research on the space
station. Develop more robust spaceships through programs such as the
proposed nuclear initiative. Then talk about where to go. 

"What we are doing right now is by way of making it possible to have a
really serious discussion," O'Keefe said. 

This does not sound like what DeLay is asking for, what many critics in
Congress or space experts outside of it are asking for: a new mission. 

It does no good, they argue, to spend billions of dollars on "enabling
technology" to go somewhere, sometime. Necessity, not desire, drives
invention, they say. Look at Apollo. 

Last year Nick Lampson, a Democratic congressman from Beaumont, tried to
force the issue by offering up a bill telling NASA where to go and how
long it could take to get there. It failed, not surprisingly. But it was
notable in so far as it reflected the level of frustration at NASA's
strategy. 




Wrong approach


"The current NASA approach is completely wrong," said Robert Zubrin,
founder of the Mars Society and author of The Case for Mars. "You have
no central objective. O'Keefe says we are not going to be
destination-driven. He says we are going to develop the technologies
that will enable us to go anywhere anytime. That's simply not true. 

"These are autonomous efforts that are not bound together by any sort of
plan," he went on. "What you have ... is all of these NASA centers with
their autonomous programs pushing for different things. It's possible
they could eventually become useful. But the pattern you see is people
getting money to play in their own sandboxes." 

Back and forth it goes, this longstanding argument over how to take the
next step. 

Without new and cheaper ways of getting into space, we are confined to
Earth orbit and more coastal sailing, like it or not, said John Logsdon,
one of the nation's premier space policy experts and a member of the
Columbia accident investigation board. 

Without a clear next destination, human spaceflight will prove
unsustainable politically, said Neal Lane, former head of the National
Science Foundation and science adviser to President Clinton. 

As adamant as the two sides can be, in truth there may not be a right or
wrong answer. 

"There are those who argue for a destination and those who argue for
developing enabling technologies," said Rick Tumlinson, founder of the
Space Frontier Foundation and a tireless advocate for the human
settlement of space. "It's not any one of those. It's all of those." 

Both paths conceivably end up in the same location, mostly likely the
moon or Mars -- the moon because we know how to get there and because it
offers the opportunity to establish a laboratory to prepare for more
distant ventures; Mars because we are compelled to search for life
elsewhere in the universe, and Mars offers the nearest and best chance
of finding it. 

They are the same choices, of course, that presented themselves in 1969
when Nixon and Congress were faced with what to do when the Apollo
program ended. NASA was eager to take on the challenges. Those who had
to come up with the money were not. 

The intervening three decades saw a willingness to keep people in space
but not to precisely define where they fit along the continuum of
exploration, or whether there was any continuum at all. The debate over
destinations and whether to use them to prod the machine builders
ultimately is less material than the decision of whether to commit in a
more serious way to the cause of exploration. 

The thousands who work at Johnson Space Center, the home of human
spaceflight, likely would answer yes to a person. Privately they express
much of the same frustration as the policy wonks and space activists.
But they don't have a place at the table. The president counts. Congress
counts. 



Beyond space station

"We're a generation beyond Apollo and still in low Earth orbit doing
high school science experiments," said Richard Zimmer, a former
Republican congressman from New Jersey who sat on the space subcommittee
for six years in the 1990s. "Unless some really good scientific
discovery comes from the space station, I think in 10 years it will not
have much purpose. What is the step beyond the space station? I don't
know. I just wonder whether the money will be there." 

In its brief history, NASA has had two great and bold missions, as
distinct as night and day. The first, Apollo, was a triumph of
technology in the service of politics. The second, Voyager, was a
triumph of vision in the service of science. One was a product of the
manned program, one the unmanned. 

The thread that united them, besides pushing the frontier of human
experience, was clarity of purpose. One sought to rally belief in
American ability, and perhaps the human spirit, by placing men on the
moon and bringing them home. The other ingeniously sought to take
advantage of a rare alignment of the outer planets and fly by all of
them on an inaugural voyage of discovery. 

Ed Stone, lead scientist for the Voyager mission, said those who set
space policy need to have a view that embraces both. 

"You have to look at 10 years from now to see what human spaceflight is
going to be," he said. "It's going to take 10 years to develop whatever
program you approve. If you don't make a decision, then you have made a
decision that the program is going to slow or stop. I believe the U.S.
needs to invest in pushing that future." 

So does Harrison Schmitt, one of the last two men to walk on the moon.
The New Mexico geologist got the rarest of human opportunities on Apollo
17. That was 31 years ago. He would like to think it was not just a
fluke. 

"We always have to remember that space activities are bigger than just
science," Schmitt said. "Space exploration is an element of our national
being."

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