Profs debate Mars mission

In 1803, Lewis and Clark set out for the Pacific Ocean. In 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Now, in 2005, humans are again trying to push the limits of adventure with a new destination in mind: Mars.

President Bush announced in January plans to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars, a project that has sparked mixed reactions from University faculty members. Last month, a panel of Yale experts led by physics and astronomy professor Meg Urry expressed logistical and financial concerns about the Moon-Mars Project in a letter sent to NASA as part of a government-commissioned report.

According to the correspondence, current astronomy and astrophysics research has benefited the nation, but NASA should not jeopardize its other projects in favor of risky exploration missions.

Urry said that further study of recent discoveries, such as dark energy, should be at the top of NASA’s priority list. The Hubble telescope confirmed the existence of dark energy, a force believed to oppose gravity and cause an accelerating expansion of the universe, she said.

“We basically missed something incredibly fundamental in physics,” Urry said. “This discovery alone has completely changed how we understand the world around us.”

According to some scientists, NASA’s Moon-Mars initiative, a very expensive endeavor, might limit the funding for such scientifically relevant projects. For the first time, Urry said, Congress has authorized NASA to move money between their science and human space flight accounts.

To address monetary concerns, Urry advocated a “pay as you go” plan a year ago to finance the mission to Mars. She said the International Space Station is no longer a useful expenditure, and its funding of $5-8 billion per year could be spent on Mars.

Astronomy chair Charles Bailyn said unless NASA’s budget increases drastically, the organization will have to cut back important, less publicly understood work. While the Moon-Mars Project is feasible and financially possible, the United States does not have the will to commit the needed funding at this time, Bailyn said.

He said the money needed to send human expeditions to the Moon and Mars could be more wisely spent on unmanned missions that would achieve the same scientific goals.

“From the scientific point of view, the Moon-Mars project is clearly not a good idea,” Bailyn said.

Bush has set a timetable for setting foot on the red planet between 2009 and 2020, but Urry said the Moon-Mars project will progress slowly, and NASA must keep other important projects in the works. Congress has expressed concern about this schedule, as it will drive the cost up $200-300 billion just to reach the Moon, Urry said.

“I am simultaneously excited about the vision, but the implementation is worrisome,” she said. “There is a potential for a negative impact on science which has been such a huge success in the last decade.”

Bettyann Kevles, a history professor with a specialty in aeronautical history, said that current astronomy research is not as valuable as a human mission to Mars.

“There is no application today [for astronomy],” Kevles said. “It’s history — finding light from millions of years ago. It is just satisfying human curiosity.”

The country’s lack of qualified engineers and theorists is another obstacle facing the project, Kevles said. She said the dearth of specialists has already driven NASA to outsource the more technical jobs.

“The older experts are gone, and no one has followed in their path,” she said. “We can build up a group of brilliant engineers, but it will take time, and I don’t see it happening in the next 15 years.”

Perhaps Mars is not the best bang for the buck for pure science and represents triumph of mankind over nature more than scientific advancement, Urry said.

“Science isn’t really the reason we want to send people to Mars,” she said. “People loved the rovers on Mars and the Titan, but having a human standing there is another thing altogether.”

Kevles said public support for space explorations will eventually fade if humans are not sent to the Moon and Mars.

The Moon-Mars project is not exactly a new initiative. It has been proposed many times in the past, including by former President George H.W. Bush. But in the former Bush administration, the plan fizzled, leaving some worried that history could repeat itself.

Bailyn said he predicts the project to be a dreary process, sprinkled with yearly budget fights in Congress and the possibility of fading support. In addition, NASA has no permanent administrator at the current time.

“The Moon-Mars project is in limbo at the moment,” Urry said. “But whether or not this particular initiative succeeds, eventually, humans will get to the Moon and Mars.”