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APS Report Says Moon-Mars Initiative Jeopardizes Important Science Opportunitites

Shifting NASA priorities toward risky, expensive missions to the moon and Mars will mean neglecting the most promising space science efforts, says the APS Special Committee on NASA Funding for Astrophysics, in a report released on November 22, 2004.

The committee points out that the total cost of NASA's ill-defined Moon-Mars initiative is unknown as yet, but is likely to be a substantial drain on NASA resources. As currently envisioned, the initiative will rely on human astronauts who will establish a base on the moon and subsequently travel to Mars.

The program is in contrast to recent, highly successful NASA missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Rover, and Explorer missions, which have revolutionized our understanding of the universe while relying on comparatively cheap, unmanned and robotic instruments.

It is likely that such programs will have to be scaled back or eliminated in the wake of much more expensive and dangerous manned space exploration, according to the committee.

The report concluded that these recent spectacular successes amply demonstrate that we can use robotic means to address many important scientific questions. And while human exploration has a role to play in NASA, it should be within a balanced program in which allocated resources span the full spectrum of the space sciences and take advantage of emerging scientific opportunities and synergies.

"Astronauts on Mars might achieve greater scientific returns than robotic missions, but they would come at such a high cost that scientific grounds, alone, would probably not provide a sufficient rationale," says Joel Primack of UC Santa Cruz, who headed the committee.

The committee maintained that the scope of the proposed initiative has not been well-defined, its long- term cost has not been adequately addressed, and no budgetary mechanisms have been established to avoid causing major irreparable damage to the agency's scientific program.

To accommodate the Moon-Mars initiative, NASA has already begun to reprogram its existing budget, resulting in indefinite postponement or serious delay of science programs that were assigned high priority by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) decadal studies.

The APS report includes three recommendations regarding the Moon-Mars initiative:

  1. NASA should continue to be guided by the priorities recommended in the NAS decadal studies for its science programs.
  2. Before the US commits to the Moon-Mars proposal, a review of the initiative's science impact should be carried out by the National Academy of Science.
  3. Before the US commits to the Moon-Mars proposal, the likely budgetary impact should be estimated by the Government Accountability Office.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette