Former presidential science advisor John H. Marburger III passed away Thursday at the age of 70. Marburger headed the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for the full eight years of the George W. Bush Administration, which put him in the middle of many key changes in the nation’s space policy during that time.
For many, though, Marburger is best known for a speech he gave at the 2006 Goddard Memorial Symposium where he offered an economic underpinning for the Vision for Space Exploration. “As I see it, questions about the Vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not,” he said, a phrase that resonated with portions of the space community, particularly those who have supported greater commercial activities in space. In that speech, he advocated for a human return to the Moon in part to utilize its material to support additional space activities. “The greatest value of the Moon lies neither in science nor in exploration, but in its material.” He was also cool to the idea of rushing to Mars, saying that “we do not know how to send humans to Mars and return them safely within a reasonable cost envelope.”
Two years later Marburger gave another speech at the Goddard symposium, where he focused on the need for space exploration to be sustainable over the long haul. “If the architecture of the exploration phase is not crafted with sustainability in mind, we will look back on a century or more of huge expenditures with nothing more to show for them than a litter of ritual monuments scattered across the planets and their moons,” he said.
“I think we are psychologically conditioned to want to model national policy on the highly successful Apollo program, starting with its huge budget,” he noted in that speech. “But the Apollo program was a unique response to a singular set of events at the height of the Cold War. I cannot prove it except by pointing to the history, but it seems that the pace and scale of the Apollo program was unsustainable.”
As it turns out, NASA’s implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration was deemed unsustainable by the Obama Administration less than two years after Marburger’s second Goddard speech, but that warning of not trying to model programs after Apollo lives on in comments like those given just earlier this week by NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver. Will the current administration’s policy, with its greater emphasis on partnering with commercial providers and investing in technology development, be more successful in that goal from Marburger’s 2006 speech of seeking to “incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere”?