Look before you launch

March 05, 2004|By Molly Macauley

WASHINGTON - As President Bush's proposal to send humans to the moon and Mars recedes from the headlines, the $2 million President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond is to report to him within the next 100 days about how to turn his vision into reality.

The commission convened two days of public hearings this week near Dayton, Ohio, the second public forum - the first was held a few weeks ago in Washington - in a series of nationwide town meetings to ask us, the ordinary citizen, what we think.

In taking this step, the commission hardly goes boldly where no one has gone before.

In 1986, a commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan conducted nationwide public meetings to ask the people what they wanted to do in space. NASA chartered a similar committee to do the same thing in 1990. In both of these cases, records reveal that the people who go to the hearings are those who like space. So it's far from clear whether town meetings will really give the new commission an unbiased view of those of us who aren't Trekkies.

Instead, the commission might do a real public service by educating us on what it will really take to accomplish the mission. Mr. Bush's initiative is long on vision and short on details - both financial and technical. The nine-member commission includes high-ranking space and technology experts, three science professors, a couple of corporate executives and a former congressman. Surely they can shed light on the grit, gumption, money and engineering required to go to Mars.

And the commission would do well to address something else we must acknowledge: Sending humans into space is dangerous.

The Apollo generation of decision-makers - those currently in Congress and NASA - has not been daring about flying in the face of such perils. When fatal accidents happened - Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia - they delayed further space ventures for years. Such delays could push going to Mars even further into the future. If years are spent investigating every mishap that is likely to arise - take, for example, the tribulations of developing and test piloting the space plane that Mr. Bush proposes - it may be decades longer to realize the vision.

Will future leaders be more willing to take human space risk in stride? Space flight may never be routine like aviation or auto travel, but if sending people to Mars is really in the cards, the stage needs to be set by realistically emphasizing to our kids the risk of space.

The commission also needs to ensure that NASA puts in place procedures to reduce the downtime after space accidents by significantly improving the "black box" of diagnostics associated with space accident inquiry, to make investigation procedures routine and to better document the myriad changes, concerns and fixes that attend space flight.

It's quite possible that tomorrow's leaders may conclude that the risk is not worth the reward. So the commission could do well to pose alternatives.

Young people now have an excellent alternative to literally being in space - the high-resolution, high-speed and high-quality animation and graphics of computerized virtual reality combined with the truly fantastic data sent back by unmanned probes.

But what about those who want to see and even touch Mars? Interplanetary robots can do this, too, by gathering samples and returning them to Earth. Years ago, spacecraft brought back moon rocks. Just a few weeks ago, a low-cost NASA spacecraft dubbed Stardust collected samples of comet and interplanetary dust and will be returning them to Earth via parachute in January 2006.

NASA's announcement Tuesday that one of its Mars rovers, Opportunity, discovered that rocks on the red planet at one time may have been soaked in water marked a stunning success that didn't require a human presence. It bodes ill for Mr. Bush's proposal to send humans to the moon and Mars.

Advances in unmanned data collection from space and other innovations in information technology are improving so rapidly that robotic success may well undo human exploration and enable sophisticated "stay-at-home explorers."

What about the split-second decisions, spirit of inquiry and derring-do that human explorers bring? It turns out that robots may fulfill that impulse as well. Just as Spirit was beginning its probe of the Martian surface, British scientists reported the creation of the first fully functional "robot scientist" capable of theorizing, reasoning and actively learning as it figures out solutions to problems. Said the lead scientist, Ross D. King, a computer scientist at the University of Wales, "We've closed the loop without any human intervention."

There will always be those who want to fly. But as the coming decades bring ever-better alternatives to humans in space, fewer leaders and voters may be willing to underwrite the risk and expense. Mr. Bush's commission would well serve the nation to point out that high-quality space exploration can still take place.

Molly Macauley, an authority on space economics and policy and a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, has served on numerous NASA and other scientific advisory councils.

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