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Space Policy

We *are* going to Mars, so why are we denying it?

We *are* going to Mars, so why are we denying it?

Ever since the retirement of the Shuttle and the completion of Station assembly, the most current question in the Space world has been “what’s next?“. The obvious answer in everybody’s mind seems to be “Mars“. Yet, Space organisations around the world, policy makers, and even scientists and astronauts, are going out of their way to offer reasons why Mars, while not excluded, should not be the next step. They go to great lengths to explain why Mars is not the obvious answer.

The reasons offered are logical and well founded in science, economics and politics, yet totally contradictory to actual practice. The same institutions and individuals advocating against Mars are ever more vigorously preparing for taking humans to the Red Planet.

The numbers speak for themselves: Since 1960, there have been seven flyby attempts and seven successful flyby missions; eleven orbit attempts and eight successful orbit missions; seven landing attempts and eight successful landings on Mars, and one on its moon Phovos. During this time, four man-made rovers have walked the surface of Mars.

No other planetary body is being looked at, measured and poked, as much as Mars is.

On this day, Mars is being orbited by three spacecraft, while an equal number of rovers are at work on its surface, all actively researching current and past conditions on the planet and resources available:

The 2001 Mars Odyssey – Artist’s impression
Credit: NASA


The 2001 Mars Odyssey has been mapping minerals and chemical elements, identifying pockets of buried water ice, measuring the surface temperature, determining radiation levels in low-Mars orbit, and supporting ongoing exploration performed by the rovers on the ground.

Spirit & Opportunity – Artist’s impression
Credit: NASA





The Spirit and Opportunity rovers have trekked for miles across the Martian surface, conducting field geology and making atmospheric observations, and have found evidence of ancient Martian environments where intermittently wet and habitable conditions existed.

Mars Express – Artist’s Impression
Credit: ESA



The Mars Express has been orbiting Mars since 2003. Its main objective is to search for sub-surface water and perform a series of remote-sensing observations designed to shed new light on the Martian atmosphere, the planet’s structure, geology and composition.


The MRO on a polar orbit – Artist’s impression
Credit: NASA



The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is seeking out the history of water on Mars, while also testing a new telecommunications system that serves as the first link in an “interplanetary Internet” between the Earth and the Solar System.

Curiosity self-portrait
Credit: NASA




The Curiosity rover, a full-blown laboratory, is analyzing samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks of Mars, to detect chemical building blocks of life (e.g., forms of carbon) on Mars and assess what the Martian environment was like in the past.



Only two weeks ago, India launched it’s first mission to orbit Mars, the Mars Orbiter Mission and, as these lines are being written, NASA is preparing to launch the MAVEN spacecraft which will explore the Red Planet’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and interactions with the sun and solar wind in an effort to acquire insight into the history of Mars’ atmosphere and climate, liquid water, and its habitability.

And there’s still more to come.

Elements of the ExoMars program 2016-2018
Credit: ESA

ESA, in partnership with Roscosmos, has now embarked on an ambitious long-term robotic exploration programme, called ExoMars. An ESA-led orbiter – the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter – capable of tracing methane in the Martian atmosphere, will be launched in 2016, followed by the Agency’s flagship ExoMars rover, in 2018. ExoMars will have the ability to drill up to 2 metres beneath the Martian surface searching for chemical evidence that might have been preserved from solar radiation.

Also in the near future, NASA’s InSight mission will place a single geophysical lander on Mars to study its deep interior. By using sophisticated geophysical instruments, InSight will delve deep beneath the surface of Mars, detecting the fingerprints of the processes of terrestrial planet formation, as well as measuring the planet’s “vital signs”: Its “pulse” (seismology), “temperature” (heat flow probe), and “reflexes” (precision tracking).

Clearly, mankind has been going, and is still going to Mars! The scientific objectives  of all the above missions may vary in their specifics, yet they all seem to be pointing to the same general goal: sustainability of life on Mars. “Life as we know it”, that is.

At the same time, back on Earth and in orbit,  numerous experiments are being performed researching and advancing human ability to withstand long duration space flight from a physiological and psychological perspective. Mars spacesuits are being built and tested. And desert or arctic locations are being used to simulate the inhospitable environment of the Martian surface.

Finally, institutions and industry are racing to develop the technical capabilities to launch us beyond LEO and into the Solar System. NASA next space vehicle, for example, is being built with the explicit parameter of being able to carry humans to Mars.

All the pieces of the puzzle are pointing in one direction: The commitment to put humans on Mars has already been made. The denial phase is over. Let’s move into acceptance.


Additional sources: NASA’s Mars Exploration ProgramThe Planetary SocietyWikipediaRussian Space Web 


@NeilTyson to host “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon with John Logsdon” on March 5th

John Logsdon

If you are in the New York City area, you have a chance to join author John Logsdon as he traces the factors leading to President John F. Kennedy’s decision to send astronauts to the Moon and discusses Kennedy’s concerns as the massive effort unfolded. The program, hosted by Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson, will conclude with a signing of Logsdon’s book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

The program “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon with John Logsdon” will be held at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium on March 5th at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15 and $13.50 for members, students, or seniors. Click here to purchase tickets or to get more information.

Thanks to Ellen Evaristo of the American Museum of Natural History for the information.

The Russians always launch

Extreme weather no objection for Soyuz

Weer Magazine article spreadCircumstances at Baikonur were perfect when cosmonaut André Kuipers was launched into space last December: Temperatures around -30 degrees Centigrade and crystal clear skies. Why do the Russians continue using their remote base in the middle of Kazachstan’s endless steppe?


The Future of the James Webb Space Telescope


Image credit: NASA

Greetings Space Tweeps,

I just wanted to drop a quick line for all to see concerning the fate of the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST promises much for the field of Astronomy and science in general. It will be able to see far earlier into the history of the universe than ever before, provide help in examining extrasolar planets, and bring humanity answers (and indeed more questions) about our reality. Most importantly, it will provide science jobs, research and inspiration right here in the US of A. While its goals are noble, there is controversy about its cost. NASA has addressed the budgeting issue and put JWST back on track. Nevertheless, on Nov 18 2011, the US House of Representatives will be voting on that funding.

If it is of interest to you to #saveJWST then please see this link for more information. Also check out #saveJWST, #3×10, and #write4flight hashtags on Twitter.

If you do not support the telescope, then feel free to ignore this post. I do not wish to discuss the merits of JWST here. This is just a friendly reminder that you can do something to #savethistelescope .

Science and space travel are humanity’s two most important assets. The more people know about what NASA does the better off humanity will become.

@neoteotihuacan (#NASATweetup @NASAJPL alum May 6 2011)

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Remember the story about the boy who repeatedly cried wolf when there was no wolf, so when there was actually a wolf no one believed him? Well, the more I listen to people who know a lot more than I do about NASA, prior manned space programs, space technology and yesteryear budgets, the more this story comes to mind, though between all the pros, cons and possible futures I can’t decide is who is the boy, who is the wolf and who are the towns’ people.

Read the rest on Spacepirations – 


A Look Ahead for NASA

After many years working directly with Congress in one capacity or another, I decided that I needed to see NASA from a new perspective. While I enjoyed my job, I don’t think I am the only person that found themselves perplexed by the FY 2011 budget request and the various modifications thereafter. I guess, I really just wanted to understand better how we got where we did so I could see the big picture.

One thing that WAS clear to me in the FY 2011 budget request was that we weren’t investing in technology development. Ok…NASA was doing some, but the kinds of technology that made baby steps, not giant leaps like the NASA my parents knew. I want to be a part of that excitement so I joined the Office of the Chief Technologist. I am putting great faith that this initiative is the start of something good for me and for NASA. I hope I’m right!

Why should NASA have a centralized technology focus? NASA’s new Space Technology program is a critical to NASA’s future. Numerous external studies and Congress have concluded that NASA’s missions have suffered from an under-investment in new technologies. We need to get back to the cutting edge and while the big programs at NASA try to invest in new technology, other programs often are so mission focused that it often falls off the table when budgets get tight.

That mission driven focus, while understandable, especially with how our budgets go, has left us with dreams bigger than what we can capably accomplish.

Seeking life in the solar system and Earth-like planets around other stars, forecasting major storms and natural disasters, and preparing NEO deflection techniques is not possible with today’s technologies and budget constraints. NASA must change the game such that human exploration into deep space (to an asteroid or Mars) is sustainable and affordable.  For example, using today’s technology, the equivalent of 12 ISS units of mass is required in low Earth orbit to initiate a single round trip Mars mission. Similarly, we do not know how to land masses larger than MSL (about the size of a small car) on the Mars surface. We need cutting-edge research, technology, and innovation to advance our Nation’s future.

By investing in Space Technology, we will enable a more vibrant future for all of us on Earth. Space technology has already greatly impacted the communications, biomedical, and transportation industries, improving life for all of us. A NASA focus on Space Technology will also produce technological solutions of benefit in health and wellness, energy, environment and national security.

The greatest risk to our Nation’s future leadership in space, and to our economic prosperity, is the continued under-investment in transforming technologies.  Establishing a robust Space  technology program at NASA will bridge the technology gap we suffer from today.

Will our our nation have the political invest in this vital technology? As usual, the ball is in the Congressional court right now. While I think they know the future savings is real and tangible, it’s hard to for them to look past the current budget environment. After the election, we will know more, but I am looking forward to seeing what our nation’s space future will hold.




While the debate goes on about what NASA should do and what it should let private companies do and use as a shelf product, I came up with the term to describe things NASA need to do by themselves rather than letting others – NASAssary 

Full details on Spacepirations – http://www.spacepirations.com/2010/10/nasassarry.html

So, is a heavy-lift NASAssary? How about propellant-depots?


That’s right, there is no word, “conflictions!”  I have hatched it from the root word conflict to apply to my own deep and troubling reactions to what is happening to our space programs.They are lumped into three broad areas. Space exploration, private sector development, and international cooperation.  In my mind, and heart, things are quite jumbled and intense. They are jumbled because of the lack of clear national objectives, they are intense because of the strong feelings of the exploration advocates and the private sector advocates. Additionally these two conditions are further aggravated by calls for international cooperation that appear more as lip service than serious action. Let’s look at all three individually.

Space Exploration: In my humble opinion space exploration is a government investment on behalf of the advancement of all civilization. Making it inclusive of all civilization mandates that these exploration efforts should be internationally conceived and supported. These are the efforts that layout pathways to both our ongoing scientific knowledge of our solar system and beyond, and the identification of eventual areas of opportunity for private sector programs.

These exploratory activities are financially unprofitable, but highly profitable scientifically as we learn more about all that surrounds us. They are high risk, they require careful design and development of methods of transport, and they are intended to open our eyes wider about the universe.  In the process, space exploration may uncover many opportunities for private sector development, and this should be encouraged, but with careful monitoring and regulation.

Private Sector Space Operations: First of all, I am for it 100%.  I envision the development and utilization of space elevators, orbiting resorts, asteroid mining, space tourism, and even possible settlements on the Moon or other planets.  I see all of this, including the forthcoming private sector LEO support of the ISS, as having strong potential profit realizations. This is good, this is an economy engine that can raise the standards of living for many. It is also good, because it brings forth new innovations, new industries and new opportunities for each citizen. Most importantly, the successful growth of private sector space programs is directly affected and enhanced by successful space exploration.

International Cooperation/Consortium. As mentioned above, space exploration is viewed as a government funded and sponsored program. The bottom line here is that we are finding out that no one country is going to be able to fully afford the level of development and mission activities needed for an aggressive exploration program of our solar system and eventually beyond.  Shared technology, shared costs, shared staffing are mandatory. Additionally shared or mutual goal setting is also a requirement.Well, we are not there yet.  We have a good start with the ISS, but that concept needs to be expanded into a full-fledged international space exploration program with well defined goals. One of the key impediments to this, is national ego, including our own. Right now, each of us wants to be the lead space science nation. This is a definite barrier to a fully cooperative international program.

Well what about UNOOSA? This is the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. It is a great idea with grand objectives and motives, but suffers, as does most of the UN, from fickle and seriously unsteadfast international support. We must internationally decide to support UNOOSA and make it work as an International Space Consortium, or abandon it all together and start something different.  I vote for supporting UNOOSA!

The Conflictions: Okay, okay so where are these conflictions? Well, first the private sector like all of our business communities reacts to oversights and controls. The “get out of my way, I am free enterprise” is both an invective and a solid philosophy.  This must be assuaged both internally and by the oversight and control organizations.

Secondly, as we have learned over the past couple of years as well as from our histories, governments are prone to look the other way, under certain $$$ influences or are quick to say,”let’s make a deal.”  The success of a truly well defined and joint (government, private sector, and international) space program just cannot exist when there are individuals or organizations who seek to undermine the requirements of the overall program.

Lastly, the international organization that essentially masterminds the entire global space exploration and development program must be wide awake! It must be strong, active and fully capable of taking direct global action to keep the program in line and weed out those groups that seek to break away from or break down the international program.  I see UNOOSA as being the root source for this, but in a vastly improved and very active configuration backed by ALL member nations.  The absence of this latter requirement is one of the most crippling factors that weakens the current United Nations.  That must change.

So, here we are, tons of exciting and challenging opportunities for the sciences, for private industry, and for the citizens of planet Earth.  As I have said before, this is an evolutionary threshold.  We must cross it or dwindle away into yet another lost civilization of the universe. If we cross it, my conflictions, and possibly yours will fade from both mind and heart.  Come on, lets get started.

Pens at the Ready

I just watched this video from the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference. I think if all of us follow this advice, we will have a huge impact.

[video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWhLSORCwW0]

What do you think? Should we start a hand written letter writing campaign?


I frequently get asked what I think about the direction NASA is taking. I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago but didn’t post it at the time. I’m not really sure why. This post does not outline my personal take on what we should be doing with our space program; it just provides a little bit of perspective on things from where I sit. 

Written on April 20th: 

After the president’s visit to Kennedy Space Center last week where he laid out the emerging plan for NASA to go forward, I’ve noticed a fair amount of negativity in the space community. Personally, I have high hopes for our nation’s future in space. It isn’t because anything particularly revolutionary was disclosed at Obama’s Space Summit. My perspective has just changed gradually over the past year or so, and a lot of that I owe to my interactions on Twitter. I used to look at space exploration very narrowly. Like this is the way we go to space, and this is the right way and the only way. And this is how it has to be (I’m exaggerating, but just go with it). I looked at the changes to the program more in terms of how they affected me and my community.

Now, after quite some time on Twitter, I have much greater knowledge of commercial space operations, robotic missions, and international perspectives. Because of this I am able to take myself out of the equation and look at the plan more optimistically. It has made me start to challenge the traditional thinking that is ingrained in us about NASA’s role and see more of a big picture view. 

Seeing Discovery land today reminded me how impressive the shuttle is as a launch vehicle, and how sad I’ll be to see the program end. That being said, if we waited another five years, ten years, or even more to retire it, would it be any easier? For me, the answer is no. The shuttle is an icon, a symbol of pride, and a treasure. It is going to be hard to see it go no matter when it happens. And there is no denying that as time goes on it would become more difficult to maintain due to issues like aging hardware and availability of spares. So, while I might not be ready for shuttle to end, I probably won’t ever be, in the same way I would never be ready for a loved one to die. It will be a time to grieve and then move on. 

I have heard the argument that it would be easier to lay shuttle to rest if we had something better coming along. Ares-1 might have filled that role, but there were funding issues. So now we’re trying something different, with a greater emphasis on commercial spaceflight roles. Our destinations are different, and we aren’t quite sure what kind of vehicle we will be using to get to them. But we’re going SOMEWHERE. We have a commitment to develop a heavy-lift vehicle. These are steps in the right direction, yet they don’t seem to have been met with much optimism. Of course, people have every right to feel the way they do and to question the decisions. Personally, I’m choosing not to. I just don’t see the point. 

Regardless of what I think is the the right path to take, I’m not the one who gets to make that decision. Rather than expend energy fighting it or fretting over it, I’m going to accept the new plan for what it is and be hopeful. I’m going to look around for new opportunities arising from it where I can make a difference and seize them, or create my own. I’m going to savor everything about the last few shuttle missions, and remember the program fondly. 

Overall I see that there is potentially a bright future out there for NASA and space exploration, it just looks different than what most of us expected. A lot different. If we can approach the new plan with open minds, accept that there are other valid ways of doing things and embrace them, we can make the most of the situation. If, instead, we consider it a tremendous loss and spend our time wallowing in it, then it will most likely manifest as one. For me, it was a simple choice.

Idea Observatory: Communism

The movie Moon and the history of ideas in art and life.

More than once I’ve had the misfortune of speaking my mind in a most unfortunate way.  On the subject of communism, it was at lunch with a high court justice from a newly former Communist country in 1990 who wanted to learn what American young people think about his part of the world and their ideas.  By that time I had formed my opinion of Marx, which remains, and which is that he did interesting work in the history of economic thought but it was tragically incomplete for practical application.  My ability to express myself, at that time however, was (even) less (well) formed.  I insulted a billion lives and my lunch
partner by saying, ever so politely, that Marx was an idiot.  No idiot, but no great economist either.  A compelling utopian.  A great economist would have considered more than economics in his study of economic thought.  But there I go again, reaching beyond myself.  I suppose, on reflection, that my lunch partner certainly did get the answer he was looking for.  In spades.  Gasp.

But that’s what we do, isn’t it?  In life?  We reach.  And today, writing this, I’m soaked in another beautiful Союз launch last night, TMA-18, to the International Space Station: that hallmark in the sky of Russian and American, European and Japanese — ne, Human — excellence.

We have, so the movie explores, our own communism.  Updated, inverted and reinvented as the mega corporation.  The manifesto of American corporate communism is that the ends, the corporation, justifies the means.  The argument is forwarded as an expression of jobs, designed as an expression of shareholder profit, and implemented for the security of professional management.  (See “shareholder rights” for more info).

Is this pop culture?  “American Corporate Communism”?  Yes and no.  Yes, in that the term communism is a first class red button code word affecting those we would like most to invite into the observation of the idea.  And no, in that the problem is real.  But then yes, in that this isn’t the most basic and fundamental expression of the problem.  This is a pop expression.  The basic problem lies in principles and ethics and education.  In a certain poverty of character, courage and ideas that plagues our great nation when the ends justify the least of means.

The movie makes no such error.  It presents a thought experiment in the exploration and discovery of these ideas.  And for this it is most excellent.