Web Extra Thursday, June 17, 2004

To Mars and beyond

The President's Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond presented its recommendations to the administration Wednesday morning, on how to proceed with the president's sweeping plan for future space travel. The main guidance offered by the commission included privatizing and reorganizing NASA, aimed toward increased science education and innovation.

An artist's rendition of a possible future human expedition to Mars. Image courtesy of NASA/PatRawlings.

Put together over the past four months, the report presents 14 points, including suggestions on how to change NASA organizationally and culturally. The commission determined that NASA is "stuck in an Apollo mindset," said Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, at a press conference held directly after commission members presented their report to Vice President Dick Cheney. NASA has operated in the same fashion since the 1960s, maintaining a way of thinking the commission deemed overly bureaucratic and inefficient.

In order to shuck that outlook, the commission — which is composed of corporate chief executive officers, former military, politicians and scientists — laid out specific management approaches based on business models. Tyson said he sees "this vision as bringing on an age of entrepreneurship," in the same way that personal computers developed in garages in the 1980s.

Several commission members visited NASA's centers across the country, said Laurie Leshin of Arizona State University, who commended the employees working there. However, she said, the centers "need to be more nimble," for example, in finding and embracing new technologies. The commission strongly encouraged adopting the Federally Funded Research and Development Centers model, known as FFRDCs, for all NASA centers, which they said is epitomized by the success of the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. By contracting out to small businesses for satellite development and other needs, JPL has completed a variety of space missions while giving back to the community, commission members said, as well as providing a market for small companies' products.

The members also recommended following the Department of Defense organizational structure and creating an institute within NASA to pursue cutting edge technology, patterned after the Defense Department's DARPA, a think tank and research organization. With regard to funding, the members suggested a "pay-as-you-go" mentality, instead of tallying up the total cost for each mission. But how Congress receives the report and chooses to fund NASA, which is already undergoing some administrative reorganization, remains to be seen.

The future space program, the commission concluded, could be the future of technology development and science education in the United States. By enhancing private company involvement, the committee said in its report, NASA could harness the ingenuity of small businesses while stimulating interest and growth in science careers, an arena in which the United States has been lagging, according to a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences.

Privatization also will allow NASA to slough off projects that do not directly apply to the mission of getting humans and robots to Mars and beyond, said Commission Chair Pete Aldridge. "Some things NASA doesn't need to do," he noted. Private companies would take over launching satellites under the new plan, although Aldridge said that launching humans into space should remain under the auspices of the space administration.

Tyson said that transforming NASA's mission is a "legacy question." The report, he said, "is not simply how to reorganize NASA. It contains recipes for bringing along the public." Travel to the Moon and Mars, whether by robots or humans, belongs to the public, he said, not to NASA or the scientists that use the data. That concept is evidenced by the outpouring of laypeople's support when NASA announced it would not repair the aging Hubble Space Telescope earlier this year.

Indeed, Maria Zuber of MIT said the commission began with the most fundamental questions in the report: "Why do you want to do this to begin with?" Although scientific questions and exploration are the nominal reasons for going to space, the commission listed American leadership, education, technology training and keeping good technology jobs in the United States as their goals before even addressing science in their report.

When questioned about the place of the earth sciences in NASA's future programs, Aldridge said that they must remain integral to the administration's new mission. Other agencies may not be able to accomplish certain tasks as cheaply, "with the recognition of synergies" between atmosphere, geology and space travel, he indicated. To get to another planet, he said, missions "have to exit and enter atmospheres," which will require aeronautics as well as planetary science, for example, something that NOAA or the U.S. Geological Survey may not be equipped to consider.

Additionally, Zuber said the commission discussed the importance of continuing climate change, natural hazards and other earth science research under NASA. "But we did also say that some highly regarded science programs don't fit in. In those cases, we suggested these programs go to other agencies that can do them justice, along with their budgets," she said. The committee did not name specific programs to disburse, but listed the science priorities they thought should be addressed by NASA, including the Big Bang and the origins of life.

In an interview after the press conference, Zuber said she herself supports keeping all NASA's programs intact. She also says that this reorganization is an opportunity for earth scientists to "get in that room" and "articulate earth science's importance" to space exploration.

Naomi Lubick

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