Darby Dyar on Obama’s Shift in NASA Policy

Questioning Authority recently caught up with Darby Dyar, associate professor and chair of astronomy, who has worked on NASA projects, to get her take on President Obama’s recent announcement that NASA will cut manned space exploration. Here are her thoughts.

QA: What do you think of Obama's change in plans? Is it a mistake or a positive step?

DD: It's not a mistake; it's a practical step forward that is in the best interest of science. The U.S. space program has limited resources and needs to think creatively about what goals are reasonable for us to achieve both scientific progress and exploration that excites the general public. I concur with Obama about the need for vision and planning to make this happen--that leadership was absent from NASA in the previous administration.

I believe that Bush's plan to establish a permanent settlement on the Moon and then use it to leapfrog us toward manned exploration of Mars was really a political response to Chinese exploration of the Moon. It was never well justified on the basis of potential gains in science. Yes, this means that the Chinese will probably have the glory of the next human Moon landing but I expect it to be a shared mission with other countries contributing. Space exploration has become a collaborative international enterprise, and the establishment and maintenance of a permanent human settlement on the Moon would be no exception. But the costs of the planned Bush U.S.-solo missions to the Moon were causing other missions with profound scientific impact to be postponed, left incomplete, or in some cases, abandoned. I think Obama's plan represents a reasonable balance of fiscal responsibility and vision for the next great thing to be done by NASA, which will be to send humans to Mars.

QA: Will there be significant scientific loss as a result of this policy change? What losses do you see resulting from this?

DD: I don't see losses--I only see advantages. The potential gains from manned settlement on the Moon are largely political. I am very happy to see Obama promise investment in the use of robotic capabilities to explore the solar system. I hope that his commitment to "a bold new set of [space-based observatories] to expand our knowledge of the cosmos" holds strong.

QA: Is Obama’s goal to send astronauts to explore asteroids beyond the moon by 2025 and visit Mars in the next decade realistic?

DD: Absolutely yes, those plans are realistic--we've been discussing them in my class for more than ten years! We have had blueprints for missions to Mars on the shelf for many years; that technology currently exists. We will need to get returned samples from Mars, as well as the results of extended robotic exploration missions, to ensure that human exploration of Mars will be safe. But based on what we already know about the Martian surface, I do not expect their results to provide any roadblocks to Mars exploration.

QA: Is Obama’s idea that commercial aerospace entrepreneurs should handle transport missions to the Space Station realistic?

DD: I hope so. The loss of the space shuttle crew vehicle, Orion, is certainly a setback, but it was probably ill conceived in the first place. I feel that manned missions like those to and from the space station are extremely expensive and have little scientific impact. I think that relegating transport vehicles to private industry is a savvy thing to do (I hope it works) and it will allow NASA to focus on its other types of exploration.

QA: Does this change affect your Mars work in any way?

DD: My Mars research is focused on orbital and lander data. I am happy to say that these missions, so far, seem to be moving forward. I think they will eventually benefit from the fact that NASA's budgets won't be so tied up in space-shuttle missions.

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