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What's with Obama's decision to bypass the moon? An interview with Wash U's resident expert on Mars

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 21, 2010 - In 2004, President George W. Bush wanted to go back to the moon.

Scratch that, Mission Control.

It's 2010, and President Barack Obama wants to go to Mars.

Any time a president changes the nation's space goals, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration gets a new mission and a new budget to -- in the words of "Star Trek" Capt. Jean-Luc Picard -- "make it so."

Obama's plans to ditch a lunar landing by 2020 -- been there, done that -- and to focus, instead, on a longer-range mission deeper into space has launched the space community into hyper-drive and sparked disagreement among the nation's most beloved moonwalkers -- Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong, who got there first, and Buzz Aldrin who was just one small step behind.

For an insider's perspective, the Beacon turned to local space scientist Raymond Arvidson of Washington University who has worked with NASA's Mars exploration programs for more than 30 years.

Arvidson says he's a fan of Obama's strategy and is pleased to see a comprehensive space vision.

"The first President Bush did propose a vision -- it was called Mission to Planet Earth -- but it never really crystallized," Arvidson said. "And George W. Bush did have a vision for space exploration; we just couldn't afford it."

He believes Obama's vision is more realistic and appropriate.

"We're not focusing on the moon but on more distant targets, realizing that we have to relax the time scale and put a lot more into technology investment so we have the systems that will transport not only robotic systems but humans, too," Arvidson said.

Arvidson, who is the James S. McDonnell distinguished university professor at Wash U, directs the Earth and Planetary Remote Sensing Laboratory, which archives planetary data from space missions and assists in developing mission plans. He is on the NASA team that oversees the Spirit and Opportunity land rovers that have been exploring the surface of Mars since 2004.


Obama's plan calls for canceling development of Project Constellation and the Ares rockets -- designed to take astronauts to the moon -- with the exception of the Orion crew capsule. The capsule would instead be sent to the International Space Station for use as an emergency vehicle. NASA has already spent more than $9 billion on the Constellation program.

Obama's strategy is to give NASA $6 billion over the next five years for research, to fund the international space station and for development of a heavy-lift rocket. His plan also calls for expanding the private sector's role in developing space transportation.

Critics point out that once the space shuttle program ends -- late this year or early in 2011 -- the United States will be forced to depend on other countries to shuttle astronauts to the space station.

"Even under the old aegis, we would have not had a capability to get astronauts to the space station for several years," Arvidson said. "And that's just bad planning that goes back 20 years -- because the space shuttle is beyond its design and implementation lifetime. We should have been thinking about that back in the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration. That's not a [George W.] Bush or Obama thing. That's the way it is."

Here are more excerpts from the interview:

As you understand Obama's mission, what would be the major changes for NASA?

Arvidson: In January 2004, President [George W.] Bush announced his vision for space exploration, which was focused on assisting in the return to the moon by 2020 by astronauts. And that torqued the whole NASA program.

The return to the moon in a sustained way -- like a moon base -- would require a new heavy launch vehicle. It would require a new transit vehicle, a new way to land humans on the moon. At the same time, we had to figure out how to retire the shuttle fleet because it's so old and to finish off the International Space Station because we have international obligations to do that. And that cost a lot of money, particularly with that time frame in mind.

It really started squeezing the space sciences part of NASA in a dramatic way from 2004 through last year.

What the Obama administration did is to put together this panel of very senior people led by Norman Augustine, the former chief executive officer for Lockheed Martin, which has been a primary contractor for NASA. He's also a visionary, and he had some very good people on that panel.

And the report came in last fall and said if you really want to return to the moon in the way that was being done by the previous administration it's going to cost a whole lot more money because the development of the heavy launch vehicle, the crew transfer vehicle -- all of those things -- are high-technology efforts, which you can't really cost very well. There are usually cost overruns, and that's what was happening. They were way over budget. They were late in their deliveries. So the Augustine committee said maybe we ought to skip the moon because we've been there before and think about going to an asteroid or going to Mars.

So, I think what the Obama administration has done is exactly the right thing. They've taken the broader approach of technology investment in a number of areas that have been lacking: heavy launch vehicles, new propulsion systems, thinking about targets more generally for human expeditions but also a greater investment in robotics technology, which is a really good return on investment. The cost-benefit ratio is enormous in terms of the understanding of the cosmos.

What we lose is this very tight focus on returning to the moon by 2020, but what President Obama did say is that he expects a landing on an asteroid by about 2025, and by 2030 we could put humans in orbit around Mars, and then a landing would follow.

From my perspective, and the bulk of the space scientists, it's a better program, a more balanced program.

What does this policy shift mean for your research programs?

Arvidson: I'm going to be even busier because there are more robotic precursors planned than we had before. With the concentration on getting all these capabilities to go back to the moon before 2020, it really put a very tight constraint on any funding within NASA, beyond getting ready for human flight.

So, backing off from that and investing in technology and for robotic precursor missions means there will be a more broadly balanced exploration of the solar system with humans going to deep space -- but five years beyond what they were talking about for going back to the moon.

Well-regarded Apollo astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, have openly criticized the cancellation of the return-to-the-moon project, warning that the new policy de-emphasizes the role of astronauts and will weaken the U.S. space program.

Arvidson: In the long term, it makes NASA stronger because the technology investments across the board are what we need, as opposed to just getting people back on the lunar surface by 2020. As Obama said, we've been there. Why are we going back? Let's go to deeper targets that are more challenging.

And it's not all the astronauts. Buzz Aldrin, for example, went down to Cape Canaveral with the president, and he pretty much supports the approach. If you talk to the space science community, they think it's a better approach, but the astronauts are into flight as quickly as possible, so I'm not surprised that the majority of them are unhappy with this new approach because it means that we're not going to targets beyond lower earth orbit for five years beyond what the Bush administration had proposed to go back to the moon.

What about the emphasis on developing the private sector? Some critics have warned against becoming reliant on commercial space travel.

Arvidson: The whole idea of having everything government-done is one way to do it, but here's an example: communications satellites.

Originally, communications satellites were government-funded. But then pretty quickly that was spun off into the private sector because they could see a profit. So now the communications satellites, except for the defense ones, are all commercial ventures, and it's a thriving industry.

Another example is the satellites that do remote sensing of the earth. That's an area that was driven in the civilian sector by NASA. There are now umpteen companies that are either using the NASA satellites, or they've flown their own satellites.

Getting industry more directly involved in controlling their destiny in terms of space exploration is a great thing to do.

So, are we talking about something like the Greyhound bus company, but in space?

Arvidson: What's wrong with that? It's a great idea.

It's already started stirring a lot of interest from both start-up companies and the big aerospace companies. It's largely for transport, unmanned -- getting supplies up and building blocks for the space station. Maybe human transport, too. I think the government will still be largely involved, but having the commercial sector more directly involved and having a stake in it is a splendid idea.

How is your work on the Mars rovers program going these days?

Arvidson: Spirit the rover is asleep for the winter because we got kind of stuck in the sand. If it wakes up this fall when it becomes the spring season in the southern hemisphere of Mars, we'll try to drive it out. So now we're driving Opportunity, which believe it or not is still working. And these guys are way out of warranty. They were meant to operate 90 days, and we're in our seventh year.

There's also the Mars Express, which is the European orbiter around Mars, and we're working with the French team on using their imaging system to identify the presence of clay minerals and hydrothermal deposits. The more we look, the better Mars looks in terms of wet, warm conditions [early in its development].

We're archiving most of the data from NASA, and we have 50 terabytes of online data that people get from us. And planning new missions -- we're involved in a proposal to robotically land on Dimos [a Martian moon] in 2020 and then some Venus missions and other things. There's a lot going on.

Interestingly, there are people across the world who still follow Spirit and Opportunity. They don't care about orbiters, robotically, but rovers are like walking across the surface of a planet. The cameras are the same height as the human eye. The landscape is eerie but not particularly unearth-like. There is a host of folks who follow everything we do.

Would you like to go to Mars?

Arvidson: Me?

Personally, no. I go there every day.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.