On 15 April, NASA got its long-awaited marching orders from President Obama. The agency is to send people to Mars using a series of ”stepping-stone” destinations that are themselves of interest: Lagrange points, near-Earth asteroids, and Martian moons. The plan is pretty much exactly what Planetary Society president Wesley T. Huntress Jr. proposed in 2004. James Oberg corresponded with Huntress following President Obama’s introduction of the plan.
IEEE Spectrum: How do you feel about the new NASA space plan?
Wesley T. Huntress: I am absolutely delighted with the new direction NASA has received. And the president demonstrated with his visit [to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on 15 April] that he is fully engaged.
Spectrum: How is the president’s attention important?
WTH: This is the first time NASA has enjoyed full administration support since Apollo, and it is crucial for sustainability of the program. I like what he said: ”[By undertaking this strategy,] we will no longer rely on our past achievements and instead embrace a new and bold course of innovation and discovery.” It is exactly the kind of inspiration the space program can bring the entire country.
Spectrum: Why did Constellation—the program to return to the moon—have to die?
WTH: The old Constellation plan was to go back where we had once been, to do only marginally better than we did 40 years ago. It was neither inspirational nor sufficiently challenging for a space program as storied as America’s.
Spectrum: Does this mean the end of dreams for human exploration of the moon?
WTH: Others may go there and follow in our footsteps of long ago. Best of luck to them.
Spectrum: What do you see as the main theme of American spaceflight strategy?
WTH: We want to be in the lead. We want to be out there, farther out than others dare go, clearing a path beyond the moon and onward to Mars. Mars is where the American public really wants us to go, and we can give them a good game, just like we did with getting to the moon in the 1960s.
Spectrum: How does the new plan accomplish this?
WTH: The new plan is to proceed to Mars step-by-step, making ever farther excursions in space as we develop our technological abilities. [We aim to] proceed to intermediate destinations along the way, beginning with trips to lunar orbit, to the Sun-Earth Lagrange points, to near-Earth asteroids, and finally to the Martian moons before that first trip down to the Martian surface.
Spectrum: What role did you play in developing this strategy?
WTH: This is an approach to human exploration that my team proposed in a four-year study by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) called ”The Next Steps in Exploring Deep Space,” which was published in early 2004. This same strategy was reemphasized in late 2008 by the Planetary Society’s ”Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century.”
Spectrum: And when you heard the policy explained from the White House, how did you feel?
WTH: Those of us who advocated this plan are gratified. We really felt this plan was an affordable, sustainable, commonsense approach to what should come after Apollo and the space station.
Spectrum: Were you surprised by how much it resembled your plan or were you made aware of ongoing policy discussions within NASA?
WTH: I was not aware of any ongoing policy discussions within NASA. After the Augustine report [the ”Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee,” October 2009] showed that Constellation was unaffordable and unsustainable and that there were some bolder and more expansive possibilities to be considered, I was hopeful that the ”flexible approach” option would appeal to the new administration.