Senators to NASA chief: Go somewhere specific

Feb 24, 2010 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer
Graphic shows some possible future NASA missions

(AP) -- NASA needs to go somewhere specific, not just talk about it, skeptical U.S. senators told the space agency chief Wednesday.

President Barack Obama's proposed budget kills the previous administration's return-to-the-moon mission, sometimes nicknamed "Apollo on steroids." That leaves the space agency adrift without a goal or destination, senators and outside experts said at a Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee hearing, the first since Obama unveiled his new space plan this month.

On top of that the nation's space shuttle fleet is only months away from long-planned retirement, an issue for senators from Florida, where NASA is a major employer. And while the new NASA plan includes extra money - $6 billion over five years - for private spaceships and developing new rocket technology, NASA shouldn't be just about spending, the senators said. It should be about John F. Kennedy-like vision.

"Resources without vision is a waste of time and money," Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said, calling the Obama space plan a "radical change of vision and approach." He vowed to fight the plan "with every ounce of energy I have."

And former chief astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson said the new plan "has no clear path, no destination, no milestones and no program focus."

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said after the hearing that critics were confusing the lack of a specific destination or timetable with the lack of a goal.

NASA has a goal, a big one, Bolden said. It's going to Mars. But Bolden added that getting to Mars is more than a decade away and NASA needs to upgrade its technology or else it never will get there.

"We want to go to Mars," Bolden said. "We can't get there right now because we don't have the technology to do it."

That is why he said the new NASA plan invests in developing in-orbit fuel depots, inflatable spaceship parts, new types of propulsion and other technology.

Bolden would not even guess when NASA would try to send astronauts to Mars, but said the technology NASA is studying could cut the trip to the Red Planet from three months to a matter of days if it works.

"We're oh-so-close, but we've got to invest in that technology," Bolden testified.

Subcommittee Chairman Bill Nelson, D-Fla., seized on the Mars comment as a goal that could be embraced. But the other Florida senator, Republican George LeMieux, saw the comment as too vague.

"I have great concern about saying we'll get there someday and not knowing when it's going to be," LeMieux said.

Former Martin Marietta chief operating officer A. Thomas Young said he worried about "no expectation of any human exploration for decades."

That's not what's in the NASA plan, countered Miles O'Brien, a former CNN anchor who now is on NASA's Advisory Council. He said NASA's new plans are more realistic than the ones that were just canceled, which he likened to a middle-aged former athlete "spending all his time talking about the glory days."

The new NASA plans are more of "a grown-up approach to exploration," O'Brien said. But he said the problem was that NASA, once an agency known for its public relations skill, did "a horrible job" of communicating its new goals.

Vitter criticized NASA for ignoring a 157-page report by a special panel of outside experts, headed by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. But the "flexible path" of going to the moon, an asteroid or Martian moons next was first proposed by the Augustine panel. And it was the Augustine panel that called the previous plans unsustainable.

NASA's new plans are "consistent with the options we laid out," MIT astronautics professor and Augustine panel member Ed Crawley said in a Wednesday phone interview. And the path chose is aligned with the options that were scored highest in the panel's rating system, he said.

Explore further: Obama salutes 45th anniversary of US astronauts' Moon landing

More information: NASA: http://www.nasa.gov
Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee: http://commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?pScienceandSpace
Augustine panel's report: http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/396093main-HSF-Cmte-FinalReport.pdf

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jamey
4.7 / 5 (3) Feb 24, 2010
I'm *STILL* confused about why a project re-using parts of the Shuttle system (SRBs, Shuttle Main Engines) and essentially duplicating the Apollo Capsule, scaled up to 4 people, instead of 3, ended up so flippin' over budget and behing schedule! And was supposed to take so very long to start with!
Arkaleus
5 / 5 (1) Feb 25, 2010
The senators are completely correct - a space program makes no sense without some purpose to be up there. I can't think of a more pathetic sign of our lack of science leadership when NASA can't find something to do in the rest of the universe.

If we're stuck looking for worthwhile activities, why don't we start by sending small fleets of mineral probes to the moon, to Mars, Mercury and to the asteroids. I'm sure there's enough precious or interesting materials to make advances in robotic mining seem interesting.

Sadly, I think it won't be until China or India has announced the discovery of major deposits of precious minerals or metals that our space scientists get back into the game.
Javinator
5 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2010
They said right in the article that their plan is to get humans to Mars. Sure, putting a random expected "due date" can be seen as a motivator, but with a project like this the date would be meaningless. It would either cause frustration in the future when we don't get to Mars by the time we said we would or it will cause corner cutting and safety issues trying to rush a manned flight to space.

I see nothing wrong with investing in the necessary technology now and planning the specifics of the trip later. How can you accurately plan a job if you don't know exactly what tools you'll be using?
ralph_wiggum
5 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2010
The NASA vision should be two-fold:
1) Engage in basic science and engineering that cannot be done commercially because it will not produce immediate profits. Examples: astronomy, propulsion, unmanned solar system exploration, materials research, Earth mapping, weather prediction, etc.
2) Support the private industry in all its space-exploration related endeavors. I would be thrilled if NASA never sends another astronaut up as long as there's a thriving rocket, satellite, and space tourism (and eventually solar system tourism) industry.

In the long run space exploration will only thrive if it's commercially viable. NASA should get out of the we-must-beat-the-commies-at-any-cost mode and become the enabler of the commercialization of space. The fact that the Chinese may spend $50 billion to land on the moon in 2020 is irrelevant if the US has a dozen companies who could do the same for one tenth the money if there were paying customers.
david_42
3 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2010
Although we don't have the systems to land and return from Mars, we can reach Phobos or Deimos. Build a base on either and gradually import the equipment needed to make a Mars landing. Such systems could be re-usable.
baudrunner
3.5 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2010
So far, so good. People are talking. We should not stop talking. It's an effective strategy to get the ball rolling.

Here's a mission proposal: A limited moon expedition to mine Helium 3; a research effort to develop an He-3-deuterium reactor to generate the 200MegaWatts needed to power the VASIMR propulsion system for reaching Mars in just over a month.

This will present interesting new challenges, well within NASA's capabilities. Success in space thus far has been outstanding, let's do it! It's the next level.
Dunbar
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2010
Well, Obama made a good call cancelling the Orion project. Extending the life of the ISS gives commercial companies an opportunity to develop a space supply industry. I read somewhere (maybe here?) that the Orion tecnology was being opened up to private companies to get the industry kick started.

NASA should now focus its resources on near Earth objects, especially the metallic asteroids, that are relavitely easy to reach. If the boffins are correct there is a serious amount of mineral wealth within reach above our heads.

A Mars mission should be an international affair.
jamey
3 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2010
Of course, silly me *THOUGHT* NASA *had* a place to go - the Moon. And the call to set up a semi-permanent manned outpost. That didn't seem to help, though. How about something easier, perhaps - a permanent habitat in LEO capable of holding 100+ people, tasked specifically to develop methods of reducing the needed supplies lifted from Earth? Of course, this would have the side effect of teaching us a *LOT* about how closed ecological systems work, which would have all kinds of side benefits for climatologists, but hey, who cares about long-term weather prediction? We're too busy trying to force different rules into place - we don't really care if they're actually needed!
rwinners
5 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2010
Here's a mission: Get US personnel up to the space station. It appears we will be relying on the Russians for transportation for quite a few years. Will that do?
rbrtwjohnson
5 / 5 (1) Feb 26, 2010
An alternative proposal could be the development of an aneutronic reactor fueled with He3-He3(plentiful in lunar regolith) or p-B11(plentiful in Earth's crust) to generate the 200MW to power electric thrusters such as the VASIMR.
http://www.crossf...iew.html
Shootist
5 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2010
An alternative proposal could be the development of an aneutronic reactor fueled with He3-He3(plentiful in lunar regolith) or p-B11(plentiful in Earth's crust) to generate the 200MW to power electric thrusters such as the VASIMR.
http://www.crossf...iew.html


Fusion has been "20 years away" since I was 5. I'm 55 now, and it is still 20 years away. But I'm putting my money on Bussard's Polywell.