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NASA's manned space program needs a goal, destination and timetable, experts say

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In light of President Obama's recent elimination of NASA's planned moon missions, the agency's manned space program needs a goal, destination and timetable, experts say.

NEW YORK -- In light of President Obama's recent elimination of NASA's planned moon missions, the agency's manned space program needs a goal, destination and timetable, experts say.

Speaking at the 10th annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate held last night at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, experts agreed that space exploration was an important scientific and psychological component to American progress, but disagreed on how NASA should spend the $18.7 billion allotted to the agency for 2011.

"From a technical point of view, we're much closer to sending someone to Mars now than we were sending someone to the Moon in 1960," said Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics and former staff engineer at Lockheed Martin. "Why not set our eyes on the prize and reach for what we can?"

Other panelists disagreed, insisting that the Moon was a better option in light of budgetary restraints.

"The Moon is a logical destination," said Paul Spudis, a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. "The Moon is a key stepping stone on our way to the rest of the solar system."

The panel also included Lester Lyles, a retired U.S. Air Force general who served on the Augustine Commission, Kenneth Ford, a computer scientist with the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and Steven Squyres, a Cornell University professor who serves as principal investigator for the Mars Exploration Rover project.

The panelists discussion, which at times grew contentious, centered on the existential crisis of the manned lunar program: that is, whether it should even exist or not. Panelists agreed that humans had an irresistible urge to explore space themselves -- as opposed to using robots -- but disagreed on how NASA should approach the task.

Ford said the program must be "incremental," "cumulative" and have a "stability of purpose," highlighting a lack of a timetable in the current NASA budget.

"Goals and destinations are not the same thing," Ford said.

Zubrin disagreed, and said NASA needs to look beyond the Moon to inspire young Americans into science and engineering fields.

"It's a question of leadership," Zubrin said. "[In the 1960s] they didn't have push-button telephones, but they had guts."

Zubrin said Mars held more carbon and nitrogen than the Moon -- important for sustaining life -- and insisted that it could be the shot in the arm America needs to prompt the "development of intellectual capital" in students, women and minorities.

Squyres suggested that NASA consider missions to asteroids, which he said were rich with minerals and other resources and do not have the deep gravity well of a planet, which requires an expensive lander to manage.

"Asteroids are an incredible resource," Squyres said. "They're not a good place to live, though."

Ford said a rapid timetable -- within 10 years, versus 30 -- was required to accomplish any goals NASA sets. The current budget includes no such thing, and leaves itself open to a future loss of political will, he said.

"It's like pulling a tooth," Ford said. "There are some things that are easier to do quickly."

The moderator for the debate, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson, asked Lyles what interest the military has in space.

Lyles said the military doesn't necessarily have interest in conducting missions in space, but always wants to be farther out than everyone else.

"Space is the ultimate high ground," Lyles said, underscoring a desire for observational activity.

Spudis added that the U.S. also has economic interest in space, citing GPS navigation, weather forecasts and DirecTV service. That explains the current budget's outsourcing of low Earth orbit to private companies, he said.

"Space exploration has always been about wealth creation," Spudis said. "We need a permanent, stable presence on the Moon to routinely access every planet in cis-lunar space."

But all suggestions eventually ended up at NASA's recent budget. Tyson noted that NASA's existing multi-billion dollar budget is actually very small, and amounts to one-half of one cent on every tax dollar.

"If [NASA's] budget was as big as people thought it was -- three or five cents on the dollar -- it would be four times as large as it currently is," Tyson said. "Going to Moon or Mars would be a piece of cake."

Spudis lamented the lack of direction in the current budget.

"It's a fundamental problem to give NASA $20 billion and not give them a destination," Spudis said. "Wherever you go, you've got to pick something, because if you don't pick something, you'll end up with nothing."

Zubrin agreed.

"You can't reach Mars in 30 years. You can't reach Mars in 20 years. You must reach Mars in 10 years or less because of the political climate," he said. "[President] Kennedy didn't say we'd go to the Moon in 30 years. If he had, Nixon would have been elected and canned the program."

In a surprise twist, Tyson introduced famed astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to set foot on the Moon, who called into the conference from his home in California to discuss the budget.

Aldrin explained what the actual intention of the NASA manned space program was at its inception in the 1960s.

"The overall purpose is to guarantee U.S. space global leadership," Aldrin said. "It was for exploration and not other uses."

Aldrin outlined five principles that the space program currently addresses: exploration (find new places), development (build in new places), commercial (make money from those places), scientific (learn about those places) and security (use those places for national interest).

The space program needs to avoid close the development gaps of the past and get the attention of U.S. citizens, Aldrin said.

"I think we need to consider the attention span of the public and the term limits of politicians," he said. "We must have continuity in our program."

Zubrin said the future of space exploration was in the current administration's hands.

"The question is not should we go to the Moon or Mars," he said, "but should we go anywhere?"

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Andrew Nusca

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Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure