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Gerstenmaier Praises NRC Human Space Exploration Report

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jun-2014
Updated: 23-Jun-2014 10:19 PM

The head of NASA’s human exploration program, Bill Gerstenmaier, had good words to say today about the new National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration. Until today, the only public NASA reaction was a brief press release the day the report was released.

Gerstenmaier briefed the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) at NASA Headquarters.   At the end of his presentation, he was asked about the NRC report – “Pathways to Exploration:  Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration.

“I think there are a lot of good things in the report that are noteworthy,” he said, adding that “there may be some actionable items” in the report that the committee might want to take back to NAC.   He also said that it would be interesting to see how the report is received by Congress at the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on Wednesday.

Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), and his team have been diligently endeavoring to articulate how the Obama Administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) fits into a long term goal of sending humans to Mars.  ARM has received little support in Congress or the space community broadly.

In a number of presentations this year, he has laid out NASA’s view of the steps to Mars, including ARM, and makes a point of distinguishing between “exploration” and “pioneering.” Exploration is an out-and-back paradigm while pioneering implies going to stay.  He believes NASA should focus on pioneering.

Earlier in the day, Jason Crusan, HEOMD’s Director of Advanced Exploration Systems, followed that theme in providing an update on NASA’s strategy for sending humans to Mars, now referred to as the “Evolvable Mars Campaign” or EMC.  Instead of Apollo-style trips, Crusan articulated a plan that builds up capabilities that enable regular trips to Mars, with staging areas in lunar orbit, at the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos, or other “low delta-V” locations where fuel requirements are minimized.  The staging areas would be used to “aggregate” Mars “mission vehicle stacks” that would make the trip to and from Mars.  Some elements of the stacks – like the crew module -- will make a direct return to Earth while others will return to the staging areas for refurbishment.

The key message was that it will be an evolutionary effort with one step building upon the next.  The initial step is ongoing work on the International Space Station, the next step is ARM, and NASA is continuing to do trade studies on what comes next.

Whether ARM should be pursued or not is one area where NASA and the NRC disagree.  The NRC concluded that it “has failed to engender substantial enthusiasm either in Congress or the scientific community.” Still, the two do agree on a number of issues:  that Mars is the long term goal for human space exploration, that international and commercial partnerships are essential to achieving that goal, and that the U.S. Government will have to increase NASA’s human exploration budget above the rate of inflation if the goal is to be realized.


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