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Mars base illustration
The National Academies’ Committee on Human Spaceflight received plenty of suggestions from the public, including some calling for human missions to Mars. (credit: NASA)

The public’s views on human spaceflight

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This week, the National Academies’ Committee on Human Spaceflight will hold the latest in its ongoing series of meetings. The committee, established by a provision in NASA’s 2010 authorization act, has been working for ten months to examine the goals and rationale for the nation’s human spaceflight program. Like some past meetings of the committee and its technical and public opinion panels, much of this week’s three-day meeting is closed: only Monday’s sessions, featuring NASA administrator Charles Bolden among other speakers, and a presentation Wednesday morning by Neil deGrasse Tyson, are open to the public.

When asked about challenges facing human spaceflight, a frequently noted item was the limited funding currently available to human spaceflight programs, and NASA in general.

While many of the committee’s deliberations take place behind closed doors, the committee did offer the public another way to provide input. In the summer, the committee solicited white papers from the public, asking them to summarize, in no more than four pages, three broad questions: what the important benefits of human spaceflight are, what are the greatest challenges for sustaining an American human spaceflight program, and what the ramifications would be if NASA ended its human spaceflight program.

The call for papers, with a deadline of July 9, generated a significant response. The National Academies posted online all the papers received before that deadline, with nearly 200 papers listed (a tally that includes several duplicates) on its website. The papers come from a broad range of individuals, some representing companies and advocacy organizations, others from private citizens (one identified his affiliation as “Member of the Citizenry”) ranging from retired NASA employees to a ninth-grader to two people affiliated with Lyndon LaRouche.

Giving that diverse group of authors, it’s not surprising that the topics discussed in the papers span an equally broad range. Some ignored the questions posed by the committee and instead used the papers to discuss their pet ideas or technologies related to human spaceflight, or research topics in human spaceflight. Some were, predictably, bizarre: one person complained that rocket engines that use kerosene and liquid oxygen were inefficient, and that the government should work on technology to improve their efficiency—including with his one-page submission a cartoon of an “oily rocket”. Other submissions consisted of nothing more than images, in one case an infographic from a article about propulsion technologies.

Others papers made a case for a wide range of destinations for human spaceflight. A human return to the Moon, human activities in cislunar space (including servicing of space telescopes), human missions to near Earth asteroids, and, of course, human missions to Mars were all touted in various papers, sometimes to the exclusion of other destinations.

Many submissions, though, has common themes. When asked about challenges facing human spaceflight, a frequently noted item was the limited funding currently available to human spaceflight programs, and NASA in general. The instability of that funding, and overall policy, from Congress to Congress and administration to administration was another commonly cited challenge.

Most people who addressed the last, ominous question—the consequences of terminating human spaceflight—worried about the impact such a shutdown would have on national prestige, STEM education, and the nation’s space industrial base. Many cited the rise of China’s space program as a threat to the US, and that if the US ended its government human spaceflight program, it would be conceding its place in space, and even as a superpower, to China.

However, while most papers submitted were broadly supportive of government human spaceflight, even if they disagreed on technologies and destinations, a few bucked that trend. “Everyone knows that it's just way too expensive, impractical and dangerous send people to visit asteroids or to go to Mars at this time,” wrote Paul Sawyer, who identified his affiliation as “Citizen, USA” in his submission. “[T]his country does need another lofty program that we sink 4% of the federal budget into but its not going to Mars, it's an all out program to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.”

“The bottom line is that the issue IS NOT MONEY. $9 billion dollars a year is plenty to instigate and sustain a vibrant human exploration, development, and settlement program,” Huntsman wrote.

Donald Shemansky, who described himself as an “emeritus” of the University of Southern California, said there would be “no loss to scientific research” if NASA human spaceflight efforts ended. But, he said, “There is little doubt the US will continue a manned program in spite of objections. The most likely scenario is that the program will be curtailed by costs the economy cannot support.”

A few took issue with the claims that NASA human spaceflight efforts are not adequately funded. “The bottom line is that the issue IS NOT MONEY . $9 billion dollars a year is plenty to instigate and sustain a vibrant human exploration, development, and settlement program,” wrote David Huntsman (emphasis in original.) Huntsman, who works for (but was not speaking for) NASA, said the problem was that current efforts were not sustainable in the sense that “each succeeding step makes it easier for humans to go to space, to work there, and to live there.” Funding being spent today on the Space Launch System (SLS) should instead go to reusable launch vehicles, which can lower costs and enable the sustainability he said is necessary.

Doug Cooke, a former NASA associate administrator for exploration, advocated not a particular exploration architecture but a strategy for creating one, an “open process” involving various stakeholders, and role for international partners, that eventually leads to human missions to Mars. Unlike Huntsman, though, he sees SLS, along with the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) spacecraft, as critical to any human space exploration architecture selected. “A key point is that the heavy-lift SLS and the long-duration Orion MPCV are necessary capabilities, regardless of the path that is ultimately taken—visiting an asteroid, cis-lunar exploration, or traveling to Mars,” he writes.

How the committee will use these varying, and often divergent, views on the future of human spaceflight is uncertain. The committee noted in its solicitation that the volume of papers expressing any particular idea would not be a factor in its deliberations. (The committee has a number of people with expertise in surveys and polling, suggesting that it may be using those techniques to provide a more rigorous gauge of public opinion. However, the meetings of the panel devoted to public and stakeholder opinions have largely been closed to the public.)

Instead, the papers will likely provide the committee with a range of ideas to consider on its own. In that case, what they got was largely a reiteration of previous ideas on destinations, technologies, processes, and rationales for human spaceflight, with little appetite to end human spaceflight from most commenters. “[I]f NASA were to terminate its human space flight program, the community of nations would gradually relegate the United States to third-world country status,” wrote Erwin Molnar, a private citizen. “If the United States terminated NASA’s human spaceflight program … IT AIN’T GONNA HAPPEN!” [emphasis in original]

How (and if) these abstract concepts and more concrete approaches get incorporated into the committee’s final report remains to be seen. That report is not due until next spring. By that time, its ability to influence human spaceflight policy in the near term may be limited: the Obama Administration would be unlikely, so late in its tenure, to make any major changes to its policies. A divided Congress, which currently can’t agree on a NASA authorization bill, seems also unlikely to act on any recommendations for significant change that the committee might provide. At least, though, the papers give the space community, from industry outsiders to the general public, another chance to express their views.