Today's topic: What's the purpose of going back to the moon and eventually to Mars? Does NASA have its priorities straight on space travel? How much will the private sector play a role in the future of space exploration?
A leaner, meaner NASA can take us to the moon and beyondPoint: Michael Potter
As human beings, we walk around with stardust and comet water that originated from the heavens in our bodies. I do not believe that humans will be stranded here on Earth forever. I have a strong conviction that humans are destined to become a space-faring, multi-planetary species.
NASA continues to pursue the George W. Bush-initiated "Vision for Space Exploration," which calls for a return to the moon and an eventual human presence on Mars. If these goals of returning to the moon and going on to Mars can be accomplished in a coherent, sustainable and efficient fashion, they should be robustly supported. Supporters of this plan view the moon as a logical stepping stone to Mars, arguing that a sustainable moon base would provide fuel for space vehicles and help us move up the critical learning curve of enabling humans to live beyond low-Earth orbit.
In this climate of budgetary pressures and domestic distractions, it is possible that either NASA or a weak-willed Congress may choose a planet destination and skip returning to the moon. If NASA intends to be serious about these ambitious goals, the agency has to immediately tighten its controls on plans, logistics and cost. If the agency is unable to demonstrate this ability to focus, Congress is likely to impose its own will, which would likely result in a scaled-down vision.
There are two positive effects that could come from this budgetary crunch. The first is an opportunity for a more focused and disciplined NASA. The second is an opportunity for the private sector to play a more important role in the future of space exploration. The better that NASA can leverage the private sector (and vice versa), the greater the opportunity for achieving a big impact in space with a smaller overall investment.
The lesson of the last 40 years is that the government has proved it can run neither efficient nor sustainable space activities. More than at any moment in its history, NASA needs the private sector to play a critical role in space exploration. At the signing of the next big commercial deal between NASA and a private company, let us hear the celebratory toast, "To the moon and beyond!"
Michael Potter is director of the award-winning documentary film "Orphans of Apollo."
No moon base neededCounterpoint: Bill Nye
Well, Michael, near as I can tell, you and others are convinced that the United States needs to send U.S. astronauts back to the moon to prove something -- that the U.S. can still achieve the same things it did 40 years ago. As vice president of the Planetary Society, I have observed that this strong interest in having the U.S. return people to the moon is generational. If you're of a certain age, old enough to remember 1969, you are more likely to want to send Americans back there. If you're young, or, if I may, young of mind, you don't find those billions of moon dollars worth spending.
Here is where entrepreneurs -- people willing to send spacecraft to the moon without government support -- may come in. Commercial rocketeers may soon come up with low-cost, high-reliability spacecraft that can make space tourism, and perhaps even asteroid mining, profitable. But this is not what NASA does, nor should it be.
People in your camp, Michael, assert that the U.S. must go back to the moon before we do anything new. We have to go back to learn or relearn how to live and work on another world or in space. On my side, we assert that it's too costly, in terms of fuel and time, in terms of dollars and cents, if what you really want to do is go to Mars. We can leave from here, no moon base needed.
Mars is a world so very much like Earth, yet so different. A day on Mars is so close in length to a day on Earth that Mars rover teams live by Martian clocks, so they can be ready for each martian sunrise and sunset. Now and then, we pick up a meteorite in Antarctica that flew here -- from Mars. It is not crazy to suggest that life here started out as life on Mars and made the interplanetary journey after Mars was rocked (pun intended) by an enormous impacter about 3 billion (Earth) years ago.
It is a tantalizing prospect indeed that we may be able to find a very logical place to search for not only liquid or slushy water below the hard, barren Martian surface but evidence of life in the form of fossil bacterial organisms. Or weirder still, we might discover sub-surface organisms still alive. (Cue the spooky music.)
Such a discovery would certainly change life for us here on Earth. It would be akin to Copernicus showing that the Earth ain't the center of things, or Galileo showing that the moon isn't a perfect sphere, that Jupiter has moons not unlike ours and that Saturn has "ears." It has the potential to astonish every human on Earth now and as long as there are humans. This opportunity alone makes Mars a place we must explore. The question, as always, is at what cost. I assert that the right answer is at a reasonable cost. NASA's new administrator has to sort this out; the right answer may change the world forever.
Bill Nye hosted the Emmy-winning series "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on PBS from 1992 to 1998. He is a member of the board of directors and the vice president of the Planetary Society.