New Missions For NASA

By Gerald M. Smith
Saturday, August 15, 2009

The public meetings and media reports about the Human Space Flight Plans Committee, a 10-member advisory panel appointed at the request of President Obama, indicate that NASA's mission is about to change. It needs to.

For the past five decades, NASA has concentrated on exploration of our solar system. It has done a marvelous job. We have tremendous knowledge about virtually all the nearby planets and satellites, and great detail on the moon and Mars. While much has been learned from the manned space program, the scientific return from robotic spacecraft has yielded much more information about our solar system.

NASA officials believe the manned space program, which is allocated the great majority of the agency's funding, is what attracts public interest and helps support the agency overall. But the review committee, led by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, is likely to announce that the objectives articulated by President George W. Bush in 2004 -- to return to the moon and send a manned mission to Mars -- are off course. They are: A manned mission to Mars would be difficult to justify scientifically, and extremely expensive. What more could we do on the moon that we have not already done with the Apollo missions and the lunar orbiters?

The United States has reached the point of diminishing returns on solar system exploration. We should think about other, higher-priority tasks for NASA. The continued exploration of the solar system can and should be carried on with robotic missions at a fraction of the NASA budget. The agency's focus on the manned space program should be reoriented toward more pressing needs, such as the deflection of asteroids and NASA should seriously reconsider leading the search for extraterrestrial life outside our solar system.

First, if there is life elsewhere in the universe, it seems much more likely that it will be found through a search of other solar systems by the use of radio signals. In the past, NASA has supported programs for the detection of intelligent life through radio signals, but congressional opposition has forced the agency to shift gears. In the interim, private funding has been found to support a small but active program. There has been substantial progress in understanding the best techniques for search and detection of extraterrestrial signals. Given the basic groundwork that has been done and the level of resources and technology that NASA could provide, the probability of successful detection could be greatly increased. Members of Congress who are educated on the possibilities might be persuaded to support such a program. If this is the only way we will ever learn of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe -- and I believe it is -- shouldn't NASA lead and fund this effort?

Second, NASA's new priorities should also include the development of the means to detect and deflect asteroids that might impact Earth. We know that asteroid impacts have been responsible for catastrophic damage, even leading to the extinction of many species. Recent impacts on Jupiter illustrate the danger of such collisions. There is no reason to wait for a real threat. Since 1994, NASA has funded programs to search for asteroids that might hit Earth, but the effort has been on the back burner. We have developed the basic technology to detect and intercept dangerous asteroids, if we apply it in a timely way, but the development of spacecraft that could intercept and deflect objects on course to intersect with Earth is still years from fruition. There is no real consensus on the best ways to intercept and deflect dangerous objects, let alone designs for the spacecraft that would be needed, and by the time we detect an asteroid posing such a threat, it may be too late to develop the means to deflect it. Instead of developing new manned spacecraft to travel to the moon and Mars, we should be developing spacecraft that can travel to objects that endanger the Earth. Doesn't the protection of humanity deserve high priority and funding? Why theorize about trying to establish colonies on Mars to preserve humanity in the event of a catastrophic asteroid impact on Earth rather than trying to preserve our planet by avoiding the catastrophe?

Any reevaluation of the NASA mission should seriously consider prioritizing how to save our planet from impacts by exterior bodies and to take on the leadership of searching for intelligent life through the detection of radio signals from other planetary systems.

The writer worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology from 1962 to 1997. He received the Distinguished Service Medal from NASA in 1996.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company