WASHINGTON A presidential commission on the future of U.S. manned spaceflight has concluded that a manned landing on Mars must wait while NASA perfects manned space operations on the moon and pursues a "flexible path" to explore other parts of the solar system.
The White House released an executive summary on Tuesday (Sept. 8) of the report of the Review of the U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by former Lockheed Martin Corp CEO Norman Augustine. The Augustine Commission was charged with examining options for NASA's human spaceflight program and will report their overall findings to White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
A key question for the panel was whether future spaceflights should focus on returning to the moon, a manned landing on Mars or exploring the inner solar system.
"A human landing followed by an extended human presence on Mars stands prominently above all other opportunities for exploration," the panel concluded. "Mars is unquestionably the most scientifically interesting destination in the inner solar system, with a history much like Earth's. It possesses
resources, which can be used for life support and propellants. If humans are ever to live for long
periods on another planetary surface, it is likely to be on Mars. But Mars is not an easy place to visit with existing technology and without a substantial investment of resources."
The panel concluded that "Mars is the ultimate destination for human exploration; but it is not the best first destination."
Along with returning to the moon, the panel appeared to endorse a "flexible path" it defined as a strategy under which "humans would visit sites never visited before and extend our knowledge of how to operate in space—while traveling greater and greater distances
"Successive missions would visit: lunar orbit; the Lagrange points (special points in space that are important sites for scientific observations and the future space transportation infrastructure); near-Earth objects (asteroids that cross the Earth's path); and orbit around Mars," the executive summary stated.
The panel also noted that "humans could rendezvous with a moon of Mars, then coordinate with or control
robots on the Martian surface."
Congress is expected to begin working on a new multi-year budget authorization for NASA this fall that would allow the space agency to develop a long-term strategy for manned exploration. "Congress is on record in support of a strong human and robotic exploration program at NASA as part of a robust and balanced set of NASA initiatives in human spaceflight, science and aeronautics," Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn, chairman of the House Science Committee, said in a statement in response to the report. "I want to work with the administration to ensure that our nation can sustain a vital exploration program."
The House committee will hold a hearing next week (Sept. 15) to discuss the report with Augustine and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.