The Planetary Society makes its case in ads

The Planetary Society is taking out ads today in several publications, including the Washington Post, calling for the reversal of planned cutbacks in NASA space science programs. The Post ad, a quarter-page black-and-white ad in the bottom-right part of page A26, notes that “NASA is poised to sharply curtail its exploration of the solar system and the cosmos” with its planned cuts in both missions and research funding. “This is not a question of exploration for its own sake,” the ad continues. “This is about our vision for humanity’s future. It may even be about our survival on this swiftly changing—and vulnerable—globe. Out nation’s space exploration program is a demonstration of our confidence in humanity’s potential and what awaits us on other worlds.”

The society is also running an ad in today’s issue of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call as well as banners on SPACE.com (which did not appear to be up yet when I checked the site early this morning.) The ads are times to coincide with the 45th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s speech to Congress where he called for a manned mission to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. The society is also holding an event on the Hill to mark the anniversary and make their case for increased space science funding.

21 comments to The Planetary Society makes its case in ads

  • This is great and all, but I’ve always thought that the influence of groups like the Planetary Society, NSS, Mars Society and such are rather limited. Until a space advocacy group plays hardball by forming a dedicated Political Action Committee that can endorse candidates and make contributions, politicians will feel free to ignore them.

  • It’s not “great and all” at all, it’s only complaining. First of all, “NASA is poised to sharply curtail its exploration of the solar system and the cosmos” is complete nonsense. Since when is Earth’s moon not part of the Solar System and cosmos? The amount of money NASA is spending on infrastructure to explore beyond Earth’s orbit has seen a dramatic increase — albeit at the expense of some robotic missions. Likewise, “”This is about our vision for humanity’s future. It may even be about our survival on this swiftly changing—and vulnerable—globe. Out nation’s space exploration program is a demonstration of our confidence in humanity’s potential and what awaits us on other worlds” is exactly why we need to be sending people (including scientists) out into the Solar System rather than spending everything on robotic missions that can never be much more than surfacial reconnaissance.

    It has long been Planetary Society policy to send a human mission to Mars. Now that someone is actually making the hard decisions necessary to make that happen, they complain about the price. At the very least, they should grow up and propose a viable alternative to the current plan that would reach their stated goal sometime in the next few decades.

    – Donald

  • Doug Lassiter

    “Never much more than surfacial reconaissance”, eh? We spend a helluva lot of money doing surfacial reconaissance of our own planet, and we have several billion people walking around down on the surface who can’t do it themselves. Seems to me that the value of “surfacial reconaissance” can’t be dismissed so trivially.

    In case anyone should wonder, the reason why large amounts of money are being spent by the science community to explore places beyond the Moon is because that’s where a lot of very important answers are. The science community hasn’t been ignoring the Moon out of spite. Quite frankly, it’s because the Moon is simply not where the big science is.

    Without diminishing the importance of human space exploration for national pride, it is odd to many of us that a demonstration of our confidence in humanity’s potential is seen by some as having to do with planting feet on dirt.

    Quite true that the PS effort is a bit lame, but their basic argument is sound. In fact, the frustrating part of all this (and I think PS understands this well) is that the cuts to space science are being caused not by lunar return efforts, but by efforts to keep a couple of people happy in LEO.

  • If we were making the hard decisions to go to Mars, we would be going to Mars. We are going to the moon. It follows that no hard decisions to go to Mars are being made. Why do you continue make a fool of yourself as a George W. Bush and Michael Griffin apologist?

  • Until a space advocacy group plays hardball by forming a dedicated Political Action Committee that can endorse candidates and make contributions, politicians will feel free to ignore them.

    Never heard of SpacePac?

  • Al Fansome


    Maybe he should have said “EFFECTIVE Political Action Committee”. The problem (as you are probably aware) is that size of the group of people, who would write checks to a PAC for space advocacy purposes, is not very large. Now if the NewSpace industry started growing, they might generate their own PACs …


    The Planetary Society is obviously proposing the old “just give us more taxpayer money” as their preferred approach.

    Alternatively, it is clear they would be happier with a bigger gap in human government spaceflight than the raid on the space science budget’s planned increases. As you recall, the PS proposed cancelling the Shuttle early (which went nowhere as it was politically naive). This was a pretty clear signal of the choice that Lou Friedman would make between a bigger gap and raiding the science directorate budget.

    - Al

  • Doug: We spend a helluva lot of money doing surfacial reconaissance of our own planet

    Well, not exactly. We spend a lot of money on people capable of efficiently climbing into almost any terrain, drilling deep holes, traipsing back-and-forth between the field and the lab, and otherwise doing comprehensive surveys of our own planet. If we never do that on Mars, we will never understand Mars, and we will certainly never do it on Mars in finite time for finite cost if we do it the way we’re doing it now.

    Quite frankly, it’s because the Moon is simply not where the big science is.

    This is nonesense. Sure many scientists would rather explore Mars, and a lot of scientists like astrophysics, but the moon can teach us about both. It is a far more complex body than most of us are aware. Since it is the one place we can do comprehensive geological surveys, it is where we should attempt that first. Then, we can use the new skills we’ve learned to do it properly on Mars. Trying to explore Mars with excruciatingly inefficient robots now is getting ahead of what is practical.

    A few weeks ago, someone asked me to write an essay answering the question: if I had to resurect a program that had been canceled, which one would I choose. My answer discussed the science yet to be done on Earth’s moon, adapted from a reply I made a month ago here. Here it is:

    My answer now is probably significantly different than it would have been in even a few years ago, but my answer today is Apollo. After spending vast sums creating the transportation infrastructure required to send scientists to Earth’s moon, we let it go long before it could realize its potential. As Lyndon Johnson put it before it actually happened, we would “piss it all away.”

    If Apollo had continued, we would have learned far more science on Earth’s moon than any set of automated missions could have achieved. Maybe we wouldn’t have had quite as extensive a scientific survey of the Solar System as we have today, but we would have gained truly detailed knowledge of the kind of regolith-dominated surface that most extraterrestrial bodies have. (A regolith is a “soil” without biology – essentially, mechanically processed rocks and fines.) We would also have gained crucial experience in survival on the types of world that dominates the Solar System. Moreover, the Saturn-V transportation infrastructure would have been steadily improved, rather than attempting the Shuttle project’s premature and generally unsuccessful leap to reusable launch vehicles. For the money we’ve spent in Earth orbit failing to reduce the cost of orbital flight, we could now have extensive operations on the easiest to reach nearby destinations: Earth’s moon, Earth-approaching asteroids, and the Martian moons. This ongoing activity may have provided the markets needed for private investment in better transportation.

    When the last three approved Apollo flights were cancelled, we were already on a steep learning curve. Compare the one day visit of Apollo-11 to the detailed geology and exploration done on Apollo-17, only six successful missions later. The Saturn infrastructure was also on steep cost decline as production lessons were being absorbed and implemented.

    Everyone interested in these issues should read Exploring the Moon: the Apollo expeditions by David M. Hartland, especially the section on Apollo-16. This excellent book covers the geology that was attempted by the last three Apollo missions and reads like a novel of exploration. Even I was surprised at the extent and detail of the field geology undertaken, and by the capabilities of the astronauts to quickly travel and sample across entire “alpine” valleys, even under the severe operational constraints of these first-generation human missions. The key lesson of Apollo-16 is that expectations from both remote observation and automated probes turned out to be dead wrong, and a whole new theory of geological processes no longer extant on Earth was developed because of the Apollo-16 crew’s discoveries (semi-fluid brecciating flow from an impact creating a fill that from a distance looks like remarkably like lava fill).

    The geology of regolith and breccia’s is the geology that most likely dominates the Solar System (and, indeed, most star systems). As such, it deserves great study. Mr. Hartland demonstrates that the commonly accepted view that the geology and surface of the moon are boring, is simply wrong. I think this view results partly because the geologic traverses done during the Apollo missions were largely ignored at the time. People were more interested in the success of actually getting there, and scientists wanted to hare off to Mars. This wide-spread ignorance of what Apollo actually accomplished and what the moon is really like resulted in a great distortion in our perception of the relative value of human exploration versus robotics. That, in turn, has damaged our space program ever since as we continue to convince ourselves that science can be automated. At the risk of over-stating my case, I’ll argue that, today, here and now, sending geologists to the extraordinarily accessible moon is probably the best way to teach us about the processes creating the surfaces of most worlds throughout much of the galaxy.

    The science that continuing Apollo would have achieved includes, but is not limited to, the following.

    ü The stratigraphy of lunar cratering can be used to date the basin-forming impacts, and thus more tightly constrain the largely unknown history of the early bombardment of the inner Solar System. This occured as the asteroidal building blocks of the Solar System were swept up by the growing planets. Since life formed on Earth during or immediately after this bombardment, understanding and dating it is important to understanding the early Earth, but these records are long-since destroyed here. The cratering record can only be understood on-site through combining many cores over long traverses with absolute dating at each location. While this could in theory be done with robots, Apollo astronauts did it quickly and efficiently at most of their landing sites. The costs of sending the large numbers of robots required to duplicate that feat, and operating them for months or years to achieve what a single astronaut could do in hours, would quickly climb far higher than continuing Apollo would have cost.

    ü The moon’s surface is a very common type of surface in the Solar System, while Earth, Venus, and to a lesser degree Mars, are all special cases. In many ways, it is more important to understand the moon’s surface than the special cases; and once you do, the special cases will make more sense. Regoliths and impact breccias are virtually unknown on today’s Earth, and the early breccias on Mars will be heavily weathered, yet their behavior probably determine the surface properties of the vast majority of bodies in the universe, including the early Earth. As such, understanding them and their behavior over time is probably more important to understanding the universe than is even understanding the (special case) Earth, and certainly Mars.

    ü Detailed exploration of the lunar surface is the best way to map exploitable resources on this most accessible of worlds. Likewise, the asteroids that we may be able to exploit in the relatively near future also will have breccia-dominated surfaces. Understanding regolith is important both for understanding asteroids, and understanding how to separate usable resources, especially early on when the latter will of necessity be on a very small scale.

    ü There are bound to be surprises (e.g., Apollo-16) which are totally unexpected from what we believe today.

    ü The moon probably contains preserved materials from the earliest terrestrial continents, splashed up during the bombardment, which has long since been destroyed by weathering on Earth. These materials may preserve records of the earliest formation of life and its precursors. Finding such material would be of immeasurable value to geology, biology, palaeontology, and other sciences However, these samples will be rare, widely scattered, and probably deep: they could never be directly sampled by robotic missions, and it would take an extensive geologic infrastructure to find them with human expeditions. The latter must be capable of traveling great distances and drilling great depths at many locations. Such an infrastructure could not be placed anywhere but on the moon in the near future — but it can be there.

    Similar preserved remains may survive from the earliest periods from the other planets, particularly Mars and Mercury and the asteroids. The same may be true of interstellar materials and even the outer planets. Earth’s moon has been a static trap for most of the history of the Solar System, and its accessibility makes it far more valuable (to us) than the other such traps.

    Heavily modified but easier to find terrestrial samples may be located near the lunar surface. Explorers should look for areas where modern craters have excavated the original crust and lower layers of early impact debris. Material from the deepest layers will be on the rims and central peaks of the craters, so the ability to climb steep slopes covered with lose regolith and talus will be required. Astronauts can do that with relative ease. (Even Apollo astronauts handled more than twenty-degree slopes, and new-generation spacesuits will have greater mobility.)

    ü The bombardment must have struck both Earth and our moon at the same time. Both bodies, as well as Venus and Mercury, probably had impact-generated lava oceans with a “scum” rising to the surface that became the first crust. This may have happened repeatedly, although even on the moon, the record of this has largely been destroyed by later impacts and covered by debris from the last basin-forming impacts. Apollo had great difficulty locating samples of this first deeply-buried crust, although they are believed to have succeeded. Finding such material tells us much about the Solar System in which the Earth — and life — were created.

    ü Mars’ relatively weathered surface may contain a poorer record of early breccias and processes in the early Solar System than does Earth’s moon, but otherwise the surface of Mars probably is dominated by modified breccias and thus has much more in common with the moon than with Earth (or Venus). As such, understanding the lunar surface will teach us more about Mars than understanding Mars will about Earth. If we are ever going to go to Mars, Earth’s moon probably provides a good analog for gaining experience.

    Combine all this with its accessibility, and I think there is an excellent case for returning to Earth’s moon and conducting detailed exploration before we get ahead of ourselves haring across the Solar System with robots. Doing the latter has given us great information about the easy stuff and the surfaces — reconnaissance — but in the long-term, our successes have probably done us a disservice. The history of science is replete with the wrong conclusions being drawn because you took a quick-and-dirty look at broad areas while failing to take a detailed look at the sites you can reach.

    With Apollo, we could reach the moon. We could do detailed geology of a type that we cannot do anywhere else for decades to come. That’s what we should have been doing, and it is what we should be doing now. It would be most valuable done with continued automated reconnaissance of the rest of the Solar System, but if you have to choose, you should do the former before you do the latter.

  • Matthew Corey Brown

    Ahh the Catch 22. We need an effective PAC to raise awareness to get money to have an Effective PAC. Need a Space PR firm :)

    Everything will remain ineffective until we can get enough people truely passionate about space. All the money in the world can’t help a PAC if they can’t get the public behind them. And space is not emotional enough on the good points for it to happen.

    How would the last 5 years have been if instead of airplanes crashing into the WTC, a compact car sized asteroid did. It is going to take an event of that magnatude to get the public really interested.

  • Matthew: Everything will remain ineffective until we can get enough people truly passionate about space.

    This problem is, pending your scenario, a public groundswell is not really very likely to happen, at least until there’s a lot more going on than there is today. So, we need a way forward that does not require that. Which is why I think the VSE was so important. Someone in the Bush Administration figured this out and developed a way to go forward without spending much more than we do now.

    However, note the consensus that seems to exist among many national politicians of both parties on the importance of human spaceflight. We have made a great deal of political progress, it’s just slow enough that in a snapshot point-in-time view it isn’t visible.

    – Donald

  • Doug Lassiter

    I am impressed with the long exposition of useful work that could be done on the Moon. No question that there is useful work to be done on the Moon. Never said otherwise. That’s not what this is about.

    But as prioritized by the greater science community, the Moon is just not where the big questions are. I am not a lunar scientist, so I’m understandably not particularly passionate about lunar science, but the solar system science community (see NRC reports) has not shot any silver bullets on that.

    We will return to the Moon, and we will do science there (as well as lots of other cool stuff), but let’s not be an apologist for the administration by turning the Moon into a science-justified space station (remember that?) with a 27 day orbital period.

  • Science, shmience….

    A lot of us don’t want to go into space for “big science” (is that like Big Tobacco?). We want to go there ourselves to live, eat, reproduce, watch American Idol, play poker, etc. We’ll even carry you scientists along if your willing to pay for the ride.

    You’re not going to get a “groundswell of support” for space until you make public participation the entire point. And participation means them going into space to do whatever it is they want. Watching a rover via a website is NOT participation, its voyeurism.

  • Doug,

    First, we are spending public money here, so scientists do not get exclusive say on how it is spent. They should have input, but there are many other inputs to the decision. The key one is, or should be, the moon is currently the only place we can do real geological traverses with geologists on site. Therefore, that’s what we should do. The history of science is full of instances where we did a survey of a wide area and failed to look at the details we could reach, and came to the wrong conclusions. Ideally, you need to do both, but if you have to choose between a wide survey (especially if you’ve already done a lot of that), and detailed exploration where you can do it, you should be doing the latter.

    What you and the scientists are advocating amounts to foregoing the modern equivalent of the Lewis and Clark expedition to send a few robots to Antarctica. Sure, you might learn a bit about Antarctica, but you’ll return a lot less science than you will sending L&C. There will be plenty of opportunities to send L&C to Antarctica (Mars) when we’re technologically ready to do that. Today, we’re technologically ready to send L&C into the interior (the moon), and we’ll learn a lot about how to do Antarctic exploration by doing that.

    Second, I, of all people, am hardly being an apologist for this Administration, which I despise. I’ve come to my conclusions entirely independently, and, the fact that they happen to coincide with the Administration’s is both a function of the technical and financial realities of our time and a coincidence.

    – Donald

  • >>A lot of us don’t want to go into space for “big science” (is that like Big Tobacco?). We want to go there ourselves to live, eat, reproduce, watch American Idol, play poker, etc. We’ll even carry you scientists along if your willing to pay for the ride.

  • Michael,

    You say, “We want to go there ourselves to live, eat, reproduce, watch American Idol, play poker, etc.”

    I, for one, want to go in order to ESCAPE things like American Idol!

  • Anaxagoras,
    Well, I’m willing to bet that means you aren’t married! ;-) “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

    I.e. big enough that you can be blissfully unaware that things like American Idol exist. Unless you happen to stumble on it while flipping through the Solar System equivalent of cable TV…


  • Doug Lassiter

    I’m quite happy to let you live, eat, reproduce, watch American Idol, play poker, and thumb your nose at science etc. in space. Go ahead and run with that as a fundamental justification for exploration, bringing value to the American taxpayer. (Best of luck!)

    I would just rather people not point to high priority science where it isn’t.

  • I never said it should be tax payer funded…

  • Edward Wright

    > This is great and all, but I’ve always thought that the influence of groups like the Planetary Society and such are rather limited.

    Well, the Planetary Society apparently has some influence, because the current ESAS architecture originated in a Planetary Society study, chaired by Planetary Society member Mike Griffin, and released with some fanfare by executive director Louis Friedman,

    The Planetary Society ignored every alternative architecture that could have saved money. They shut out everyone who wanted to reduce the cost of space transportation, which would have allowed NASA to conduct *more* planetary missions. Now that they have gotten exactly what they asked for, the Planetary Society is complaining that NASA doesn’t have enough money left over for all the other things they would like. They sowed the wind; now they reap the whirlwind.

  • Matthew Corey Brown


    Yeah I know, the groundswell will never happen, sans distaster. You ware right not to look at snapshot when it comes to the progress that politicians have made. But these snapshots are 4 years in duration. All the progress made so far can be undone in the next 3 years. By the vocal minority on either side of the aisle.

    I’ve been seeing more and more anti-space stuff in mainstream and non mainstream media in recent years. I’m afraid the trend will continue, Space would become political suicide and it will be Australia that beats us back to the moon in 2120.

    Though maybe that won’t be such a bad thing. But i do want to see it in my lifetime.

  • Good point, Edward, and for once I fully agree with you.

    My piece on space science done by astronauts on Earth’s moon was finally published by the people I wrote it for, so I need to give credit. Here it is,


    – Donald

  • Ray

    I think the Planetary Society is not really against human exploration of the Moon (although they would prefer Mars), as long as it doesn’t eliminate the robotic exploration that is their main reason for existing. If they are against human spaceflight, it’s more the Shuttle/ISS variety – I think Sagan used the example “growing tomatoes in space”. From their point of view, the Shuttle has been harming the robotic exploration areas for decades, and continues to do so from the ground.

    The space science community probably is less favorable to the VSE than the Planetary Society. They have already had some setbacks that they attribute to the VSE, or to the VSE/ISS/Shuttle combination (ie a variety of science missions cancelled, elimination of research grants, removal of astrobiology, etc). Now it is true that some detailed space science can be done with humans on the Moon, but I don’t think they view this as a good trade. First of all, the Moon is just one case, whereas the scientists want a view of the Earth, the Moon, other solar system bodies, and astronomical subjects outside the solar system. They can do quite a lot more than you might think with remote sensing observations and robotic landers. You also have to look at other aspects of the “trade” from their point of view. At best, the VSE will get humans to the Moon in 2018. Why would they want to wait that long to begin to have prospects of results? The VSE architecture requires every component to work – a deck of cards. Why rely on that when they have small probes that do not destroy the whole program if one probe fails? Also, the safety of the astronauts needs to be considered. The scientists don’t want to have the entire field grounded by an accident (see the current Shuttle/ISS). Also, the VSE is more prone to delays and cost overruns than robotic probes, which can more easily be cancelled in the worst case of delays/overruns. These delays and cost overruns VSE may encounter will probably come at the expense of the science missions.

    The scientists also probably consider the long-term political prospects (to say nothing of managerial and technical) of the VSE as pretty grim. There are a lot of benefits to the robotic missions outside of science compared to the VSE, which they may view as an indication that the political prospects of the VSE aren’t too good. For example, the rest of the space community – military, commercial, NOAA, GPS users, various GIS users, people affected by disasters, etc, are in a position right now to benefit from economies of scale and innovations brought about from the scientific satellites and probes. They use the same type of launch vehicles, satellite manufacturers, instrument makers, etc. There are a lot of users of these services (communications, weather data, etc), although they are not politically organized yet in a way that addresses the VSE vs. science (as it may become to be characterized) issue.