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President Bush Pledges to Return to the Moon

January 14, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, a debate about [the president's] space initiative. It comes from Lori Garver, former associate administrator for policy and plans at NASA. She is currently vice president of DFI International, an aerospace consulting firm in Washington. And Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland. He’s a director at the Washington office of the American Physical Society, the professional society of American physicists.

Professor Park, you heard what the president had to lay out this afternoon. What do you make of his plan?

ROBERT PARK: Well, I’m a little puzzled. We’re on Mars now. We’ve got a geologist up there, a geologist who never complains about the cold nights, never breaks for lunch. We’re on Mars right now, and it’s looking great.

RAY SUAREZ: So your quibble is with the idea of sending human beings onto Mars?

ROBERT PARK: Yes, exactly. It’s a rather old-fashioned sort of idea. We judge the success of society by the extent to which work that is menial or dangerous is done by machines. And it doesn’t matter if it’s on Mars; that’s still the way a society should work. And we can do it with machines. But, in fact, it’s not really a robot that’s on Mars; it’s just an extension of a scientist back on Earth. And he directs the robot, he sees through the robot’s eyes. It can do anything a human being can do. In fact, if a human being was on Mars, he’d be trapped in a spacesuit with no sense of touch or feel. There’s nothing much to hear. He would have only the sense of his eyes. And that little rover that we’ve got on Mars has better eyes than any human.

RAY SUAREZ: Lori Garver, what was your response to the president’s call to action this afternoon?

LORI GARVER: I’m very enthused about the initiative. This is what we should be doing with our space program. The reason Mars is exciting when spirit land on it is because we believe we’re going further. The space program is about so much more than science. I absolutely agree, we’ve been a great space science through the robotic program. But it is because we’re going as a species that I think the public really can relate to this, and ultimately what has caused us a tremendous benefit.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Park points out that America is already on Mars. What are the hurdles that have to fall to get human beings there instead of machines?

LORI GARVER: Well, I believe we have fewer hurdles to getting to Mars today than we certainly had to get to the moon back in 1961 when President Kennedy called on us to do that. At that point, we had 15 minutes experience in space. We hadn’t been in orbit — only Alan Shepherd’s flight — and we were able to take humans to Mars — to the moon at that time. We will be able to take humans to Mars at this point with fewer technological challenges, and with less money because of the technological advances. The challenges are somewhat political, and whether or not we have the will as a nation to do this or, hopefully, as an international community.

RAY SUAREZ: Aren’t they also physiological? Isn’t there a lot we don’t know yet about human beings going on a three-year journey to another planet?

LORI GARVER: One of the great things about this program as I understand it now, and as an initiative, it’s new and we’re learning the details — the devil, as they say, is in the details — but going back to the moon first is going to allow us to try a lot of this. It’s also a natural progression out of a space program we’ve had for 30 years. We said the space station and shuttle were to support future exploration. We have experience, as do the Russians, with people in space for more than a year at a time. That is really helping us, and that data will continue until we send people back to the moon and to Mars.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, professor, the president did commit the United States to completing its obligation to the space station, to sunsetting the shuttle program.

ROBERT PARK: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Isn’t this, as Lori Garver suggests, the logical next step?

ROBERT PARK: No, I think there are a lot of other logical next steps. But I’m glad that we’re doing those things, and it will free up some money, money, for example, to build a new space telescope. If we talk about inspiration, nothing has inspired people like the images on the Hubble telescope. But we now have learned much more. We know how to build telescopes, vastly better than the Hubble Space Telescope, which is wonderful, but it’s a very old telescope now. And we need to be building another one. That’s what we need to get started on.

LORI GARVER: Well, NASA is building another telescope, the Webb Space Telescope. In addition, one of the great things about the moon would be a lunar telescope on the far side of the moon. It is an ideal place.

ROBERT PARK: They’re not building it, but they’re going to build it.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, they’re figuring out–

LORI GARVER: There’s a budget allocation and a contractor, and absolutely plans to do that. I agree that’s been an exciting aspect of this. But again, it’s that inspiration that calls us to space, and by that it’s not going to be just robots.

ROBERT PARK: But that call is Romance. And it’s certainly a Romantic thing to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, today Sean O’Keefe was very enthusiastic when he talked about the president putting NASA on the path of exploration and discovery. He said that’s what this agency is all about.

ROBERT PARK: Oh, I agree completely. I agree completely. And that’s exactly what we’re doing right now. But we’re doing it at a much lower cost, with no risk to human beings. And it does a better job. Even when we put that little Sojourner — which was a very primitive robot on Mars a few years ago — the Sojourner robot had a nose that could sniff the rocks to see what they were made of. It’s just an extension of scientists back on earth.

LORI GARVER: But if you were to ask people today, especially students, about explorers, they’re not going to name robots. They’re naming Lewis and Clark, and we need those new Lewis and Clarks.

ROBERT PARK: I am not sure you are right.

LORI GARVER: I want my kids to have somebody who is more interesting to them. The first woman who goes to the moon — we’ve never sent any women to the moon — it’s got to be more interesting than whether or not Britney Spears got married this weekend.

RAY SUAREZ: So when we do that cost/benefit analysis in your own head, it’s adding the components of a fragile human being to that space flight that adds the magic to it?

LORI GARVER: To me, it’s definitely more than magic. I believe as humanity, as a species, we are going into space. We have explored this planet, we will continue to explore this planet and, for our very survival, we must also leave this planet. Ultimately, a lunar base as the president announced today is going to help us build new things, like a solar-powered satellite using lunar materials. That will potentially end our dependence on fossil fuels on this planet.

When they went to the moon the first time, we turned around and saw the Earth. One of the best things that came out of our lunar program was Earth Day, not to mention the microchip. These are things that would not have happened without humans involved, and we’re just going to be going. I feel a sense of excitement today, and I believe that we have some political challenges, but this is the start of something very important, not only for this country, but for humanity.

RAY SUAREZ: The political challenges, professor, I guess come in the form of funding, right?

ROBERT PARK: It will certainly come in the form of funding, yes. You know, of course, this president’s father stood on the steps of the Air and Space Museum in 1989 and made the same call. He said, “We’re going back to the moon, we’re going on to Mars.” He said, “Like Columbus, we dream of shores we have not seen.” Well, if Columbus could have sent a drone, he would have. And, as a matter of fact, that program stopped as soon as they got the cost estimate. It went nowhere.

LORI GARVER: But there are a lot of differences today with that program.

ROBERT PARK: But the price is no cheaper.

LORI GARVER: The price is absolutely much cheaper. You have a NASA today that is willing to invest not only some of the current infrastructure that we talked about, it would be scaled back like the shuttle and space station investments, at that time we had a Democratic Congress with a Republican president who immediately zeroed the program. And it looks like this program has a lot more detail. This focus on going to the moon was some real time dates without setting a Mars date allows me to believe they’re going to do this the right way. This Crew Exploration Vehicle, very exciting development of a vehicle that can have a lot of benefits to our national security, to our economic security, and I think this plan is much different than the one we saw 15 years ago from the father.

RAY SUAREZ: Does this have to be costed out to a Mars landing to a date, 2020, 2030, before it can proceed, or can it proceeded incrementally?

LORI GARVER: It’s proceeding. I don’t think they’re going to be waiting for any Mars date or a long-term budget, that was a mistake 15 years ago. Technology advances, costs drop, it all depends on how much risk we’re willing to accept. Getting the price from the Earth to low-Earth orbit down is really key, and I see that as a very critical part of this plan.

RAY SUAREZ: And professor, quickly, do you think the money is going to be found for this?

ROBERT PARK: I don’t think so, no. I don’t believe it will be. But again the great adventure of our time is to explore those places where no human can set foot. Mars is just one other place in the solar system. The rest the solar system is pretty much closed to us. The gravity is too great for a human being. It would crush us. The temperatures are too high, the radiation levels are much too high. Most of the solar system is closed to us. We need to do that with robots.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Ms. Garver, thank you both.

LORI GARVER: Thank you.

ROBERT PARK: Thank you.