Tuesday’s 90-minute hearing by the House Science Committee on the final report National Research Council’s Committee on Human Spaceflight broke little new ground about the report or its conclusions about where, why, and how humans should explore space beyond Earth orbit. The committee’s two co-chairs, Mitch Daniels and Jonathan Lunine, discussed the report’s conclusions as some members used the report to back up their own—and often negative—opinions of NASA’s current space exploration plans.
“The administration’s continued focus on costly distractions is harmful to our space program and does not inspire future generations to go into innovative fields in science and math,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, in his opening statement, referring to NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) plans. ARM, he said, “is a mission without a realistic budget, without a destination, and without a certain launch date.” That is similar to past criticism he has levied against ARM.
The NRC report did not reflect favorably on an exploration “pathway” that included ARM, indicating that it contained a large number of technological leaps and dead-ends. However, the committee co-chairs were not, despite some questioning along those lines from members, critical of ARM itself, saying they did not closely study it while working on the report. “The task statement that we responded to in our report did not include a detailed assessment of the ARM,” Lunine said in response to a question on it from Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL). “We did not conduct a scientific or technical assessment of the ARM, specifically.”
While some Science Committee members, like Smith, seemed willing to lay the blame for the current state of NASA human spaceflight efforts at the feet of the Obama Administration, the witnesses stayed above any partisan fray, arguing that any lack of direction in human space exploration has roots that go back far deeper. Language in the report, Daniels said, was “meant to refer not to any one administration, but really to a persistent pattern now, and I think we speak in terms of decades.”
Members also pressed Daniels and Lunine on the costs of the proposed pathways that would get humans to Mars. The report was deliberately vague about it, other than stating the need for spending increases above the rate of inflation, as well as a greater use of international partnerships, points the co-chairs emphasized in their testimony. “I think that, quite properly, the committee didn’t want to go beyond expressing bands and ranges” for the costs of mission architectures, Daniels said when asked by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) for a “ballpark” budget estimate. “The ultimate budget would be driven by the pathway chosen” and that the committee “didn’t want to commit the sin of false precision.”
Edwards sounded a little frustrated by that response. “I don’t think we want NASA committing to those sins, either, but we do have to have a budget from the Congress,” she responded. As they stated at the rollout of the report earlier in the month, Daniels and Lunine said during the hearing that the total costs of achieving the “horizon goal” of landing humans on Mars would run into the hundreds of billions of dollars over several decades.
One issue the witnesses emphasized throughout the hearing was the importance of a long-term commitment from government and the American public for an exploration pathway, including the budget increases the committee concluded were needed to carry out the missions in that path in a “reasonable” period. (Daniels and Lunine didn’t define “reasonable,” but the example pathways included in the report have people landing on Mars some time between the late 2030s and mid 2050s.) “If there is not that strong national commitment, then it’s going to be difficult to pull off human exploration missions into deep space at all,” Lunine said.
The report, though, doesn’t discuss how to develop and sustain such a long-term commitment, only that one is necessary. “We recognize that calling for an approach like this flies in the face of everything back to the ’70s,” Daniels said. “But we also say that if it seems unrealistic to believe that sort unity and that sort of continuity could be brought off in our system, then we might as well face up that Mars itself is unrealistic.” He added in what he acknowledged was “wild, wishful thinking” that such sustained support for space exploration could be an area of cooperation for people who “disagree strongly and sincerely” about other issues.
Some members mentioned one of the more controversial aspects of the report that did not deal with exploration destinations and pathways: its finding that greater international cooperation should also include China. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL) expressed concerns about intellectual property theft should China be involved in future space exploration efforts. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) drew an historical analogy. “What if someone said in 1937, ‘We really want to develop this rocket to go to the Moon and this guy over there in Germany really has got a good rocket program. Maybe we should cooperate with him.’”
“The committee recognized how difficult and complex this subject is,” Daniels responded. “Remember the incredible timeframes over which we’re talking. Countries that are friends today with might not be friends in 2040 or 2050, which might be as soon as we can get there in the best of circumstances. And vice versa.”