The Obama administration should set a concrete schedule for human Mars missions, says a new report (Illustration: NASA)
The Obama administration should set a concrete schedule for human Mars missions, and make sure new hardware developed for NASA's return to the Moon can be adapted for missions to other destinations, a new report says.
With a new US president set to take charge of the White House and many questions hanging over NASA's future, many have been trying to advise the agency about where it should go from here.
President-elect Barack Obama's transition team has been very tight-lipped, but if the Obama administration takes its cue from the preponderance of advice it's getting, then human missions to Mars may well move up in priority.
Back in November, the Planetary Society, a space advocacy group, released a report called "Beyond the Moon", which called for delaying new missions to the Moon and channelling more resources into paving the way for human missions to Mars instead (see Moon takes a backseat in new space plan).
Now, an independent group of space experts, led by David Mindell of MIT, is calling for a timeline for human Mars missions, and urging that any Moon hardware be designed with other destinations in mind as well.
On Monday, the panel released its report, called "The Future of Human Spaceflight". It was produced by a group of experts including former shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman and John Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
There are some links between the panel and the Planetary Society - Logsdon is a member of the group's advisory council - but the new report was an independent effort.
While the new report stops short of endorsing the Planetary Society's plan, it does urge a rethink of where and when to send astronauts. "The Obama administration and Congress should examine the Bush vision, assess its limitations . . . [and provide] clarification of the moon/Mars strategy with a timetable for the Mars component," it says.
"Even if it means somewhat easing the 2020 deadline for lunar return, NASA must ensure that the new architecture provides a solid foundation for the next generation of human spaceflight," it adds.
It expresses concern that "critical technologies for long-duration missions and Mars landings are not being actively investigated". Previous reports by the US National Research Council have found that technologies including propulsion, lunar dust mitigation and robot vehicles are being designed for the Moon and not Mars, for example.
Cooperation with China
The report also says the US should consider cooperative space efforts with China. Relations between the US and China have been tense at times, notably in the wake of China's test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007. But Mindell argues that tensions were higher between the US and the Soviet Union when the two countries docked an Apollo capsule with a Soyuz spacecraft in Earth orbit in 1975.
Though some in the US fear space cooperation could allow China to gain new technologies useful for military applications, Mindell says it should be possible to avoid this. For example, joint space missions might involve sharing information about the design of innocuous items such as docking rings, he says.
"It's possible to ask what of the technologies involved are unique to human spaceflight, and then to say, can you devise a collaboration that involves sharing those technologies and not other kinds of things," he told New Scientist. "Now, we've gone the complete other way . . . and it's not clear that's been in the US interest."
Ironically, the lack of cooperation may be boosting China's international prestige, by reinforcing public perceptions that the two countries are in a closely competitive race to the Moon, the report says.
Mindell says members of the panel met with Obama's transition team last week and gave them a copy of the report.