Statement by Louis Friedman before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation United States Senate January 28, 2004

Status Report From: Planetary Society
Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Given at a Full Committee Hearing: National Aeronautics and Space Administration s (NASA) Future Space Mission, January 28 2004 - 9:30 AM - SR-253

The Testimony of Dr. Louis Friedman Executive Director, The Planetary Society

Chairman McCain, Senator Hollings, and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the National Space Policy Directive issued two weeks ago by President Bush. Both its title, "A Renewed Spirit of Discovery," and its stated goal to "extend human presence across the solar system," capture a spirit that we at The Planetary Society have long advocated. The new Policy Directive states clearly that the human space program will no longer flounder without a compelling goal, and will finally set its sights on other worlds. Understanding and extending life beyond Earth is the only purpose that justifies the cost and risk of human space flight.

In the past much has been made of "manned" vs. "unmanned" programs - creating a sense of animosity between the human and robotic aspects of exploration. This is absurd - exploration requires sophisticated robots, no matter where the humans are, and, as humans, we are not satisfied with robots being our emissaries forever - especially when asking for popular support from a taxpaying public. We welcome the Policy Directive's up-front statement that the goal of the American space program is to "Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond" (emphasis, mine).

Restoring exploration as the raison d'etre of the space program is a welcome development to those of us motivated by science and exploration.

The goal and vision are terrific. Setting goals and providing a broad vision are the President's job, and that of you and your colleagues. The challenge and question now is its implementation. Other space visions have turned out to be counter-productive to advancing space exploration, even with some noble aims: the shuttle, the space station, the 1989 "Moon-Mars Initiative," for example. A great deal of public, political and international constituency building will be required.

Cost and rationale are key to the constituency building, and these have not yet been adequately explained. Unfortunately, the Administration space policy study was conducted in secret; now there should be a period of public interaction. There is adequate time for this - the Administration's proposed first steps in the new policy are overdue and needed in any case to save our human space program.

Those welcome first steps in the implementation include:

  • Retire the shuttle quickly after completing assembly of the International Space Station -- 2010 is mentioned as a target year. Redirecting the U.S. role in the space station to focus "on supporting the space exploration goal;"
  • Separating crew and cargo, not just in launch vehicles but for "transportation to the International Space Station and for launching exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit;"
  • Building a new crew vehicle that would "provide crew transportation for missions beyond low Earth orbit." Previous Orbital Space Plane requirements did not mention such missions.
  • "Conduct robotic exploration across the solar system for scientific purposes and to support human exploration." This is particularly welcome - the policy is not limited to the moon and Mars, and supports science, even "to understand the history of the solar system." The Planetary Society

These are the first steps - the ones that have to be funded and carried out in the five-year budget projections that the President will submit to Congress in a few days. We believe they are affordable and reasonable, and that worthy programs in space science would need not be cut to permit their accomplishment.

The questions and concerns about the Policy Directive are longer-term, beyond the five-year period. There are many open technical questions: the launch vehicles to be used for human flights to the Moon and Mars, the on-orbit assembly and propulsion requirements, the design of the interplanetary crew vehicle and dealing with weightless flight and the dangers of high radiation levels, setting up Mars infrastructure support robotically, and the crew activity planning for Mars exploration. The program set out in the Policy Directive allow proper time for answering these questions, while at the same time accomplishing the first steps to redirect the program.

Funds for vehicles and human missions beyond Earth orbit are not yet allocated. The projected NASA budget may be inadequate for dealing with all the technical challenges and conducting human missions on the Moon or sending humans to Mars. But, ways to lessen the cost of human exploration of Mars, including from international partnerships, should also be learnt during this period. The Planetary Society urges that a Mars Outpost be set up robotically at a potential human landing site for emplacing robotic infrastructure that can increase reliability and safety and lower cost for the human mission. A Mars Outpost is an appropriate goal for international robotic Mars programs in the next decade.

Cost is determined by requirements. The technical steps cited above, and the emplacement of a robotic Mars Outpost, can reduce the cost of sending the humans to Mars. Conversely, Martian exploration will be more expensive if it includes extensive lunar objectives, prohibitively so if they include developing permanent lunar bases or open-ended exploration for speculative lunar resources.

Much rhetoric and even some of the official statements accompanying the Directive have been confused or misleading on this subject. One even called for launching spacecraft from the Moon into the solar system. There is probably no more expensive way that could be devised to reach Mars.

Fortunately, the President's policy itself does not call for these things. It says only that we should "Undertake lunar exploration activities to enable sustained human and robotic exploration of Mars and more distant destinations in the solar system" and "Use lunar exploration activities to further science, and to develop and test new approaches, technologies, and systems, including use of lunar and other space resources, to support sustained human space exploration to Mars and other destinations." The underlined phrases clearly specify that lunar activities should be directed to enable Mars exploration, and not be an end in and of themselves.

Use of lunar resources for supporting exploration beyond the moon is proposed in a White House Fact Sheet that accompanied the release of the Policy Directive. The costs for any proposed use (e.g. extracting oxygen from lunar rocks) must be estimated and compared with alternatives (e.g. bringing the oxygen from Earth.) The topic must be subject to economic analysis before any commitment to such a program is made. Twelve Americans have walked on the moon (15 more have flown around it) and some 70 robotic spacecraft have been there - we must carefully consider what we already have done there before planning new missions. The moon, as stated in the Policy Directive, shall only be "to prepare for and support future human exploration activities." We cannot afford to get bogged down on the Moon as we have in Earth orbit the past three decades.

While the United States and Russia have been to the Moon many times, it is a target of international interest. Currently: The European Space Agency has a mission, SMART-1, on the way to the Moon Japan is developing two lunar missions: Lunar A, which may launch in the next year, and SELENE, now scheduled for 2006. India is developing a mission, Chadrayan-1, for a 2008 launch There are reports from China they will conduct robotic lunar orbiter and landing missions in this decade, and perhaps that they have a 2020 human landing mission goal.

International cooperation is supported in the Policy Directive, and there is a need to build international partnerships for the grand goal of humans to Mars. Working with international partners can help us greatly to lower the cost of realizing our objectives at the Moon and in achieving the required set of missions faster. The Planetary Society urges the United States and other space-faring nations to cooperate and coordinate their robotic lunar missions. This could pave the way for an international human crewed mission to the Moon and be a solid step in building the team for the Martian expeditions.

Engineers can work out the details of interim technical milestones for a human mission to Mars. Various national and international studies have considered interim human destinations near Earth and at points where Sun and Earth gravity produce dynamical stability, or at asteroids, which provide interesting targets in their own right. These steps might also be investigated as interim milestones for human flight to Mars.

The Planetary Society cofounder, Carl Sagan wrote, "There's plenty of housework to be done here on Earth and our commitment to it must be steadfast. But we're the kind of species that needs a frontier - for fundamental biological reasons. Every time humanity stretches itself and turns a new corner, it receives a jolt of productive vitality that can carry it for centuries. There is a new world next door. And we know how to get there."

Only at Mars will we begin to learn whether humankind is limited to a single planet; only at Mars will humans be able to investigate the questions of other life. These are the great human purposes for which we send humans to space. The lure of Mars is dramatically revealed by the enormous public interest and excitement that attended the landings of Mars rovers this past month and the presence of five robot emissaries from planet Earth now explorating that alien world. Imagine if those robots were us.

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