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Zuber Talks to Tech About Space Exploation Goals

By Joia Ramchandani

MIT Professor Maria Zuber was appointed about a month ago to the Presidential Commission on the Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. The nine-member commission has the task of advising NASA on the long-term implementation of President George W. Bush’s space exploration initiative.

Bush’s vision for the future of the space program, announced on Jan. 14, includes the completion of American work on the International Space Station by 2010, re-focused research on safety in space missions, expansion of manned exploration of space, and an extended human presence on the moon as a precursor to manned missions to Mars and beyond, according to a fact sheet released by the White House.

Zuber said that the role of the commission is not to question the administration’s goals for space exploration, but rather to start a national dialogue about the future of the nation’s space program.

Ultimately, Zuber said, the commission’s duty will be to synthesize feedback they receive from both advocates and critics of the initiative in the interest of developing an implementation strategy that will appeal to a broad spectrum of groups.

Many concerns to be addressed

Critics of the newly-announced program have voiced dissent regarding the retirement of the Hubble space telescope, which has been a huge source data in microgravity-based research.

Another point of concern has been the billion dollar budget increase NASA will require to carry out the space program; opponents of the initiative argue that these federal funds would be better spent on domestic programs, such as healthcare.

Zuber said “investing another billion dollars in healthcare [is not the way] to make the problem go away.” She said that the future of healthcare across the nation hinges upon educating and inspiring America’s youth as well as on maintaining the country’s competitive edge for knowledge and discovery.

Zuber also said that a large portion of the resources for the program are to be derived from the reallocation of funds and brainpower within NASA.

In addition to responding to the critics of the space initiative, the commission would look back and determine why similar programs have been unsuccessful in the past, Zuber said.

She said that she feels that since the Kennedy administration, space exploration proposals have lacked a unifying vision that has the power, appeal, and organization to span beyond a single administration and bridge separate parties.

Zuber said that in order for the program to be sustainable, “it can’t be President Bush’s space plan, it has to be America’s space plan.” She forecasts that the program, if successful, will extend through as many as ten presidential administrations.

Changes in store, Zuber says

Zuber said that the commission will need to consider making some fundamental cultural changes to the space exploration program.

Up until now, she said, there has been no concerted effort to combine robotic and manned mission efforts under the umbrella of one program. Uniting the scientific and technological efforts on both fronts will optimize the space exploration process, she said.

To be truly successful, Zuber noted the American space initiative also has to address the cultural challenge of integrating the international community into the space initiative, while also balancing the importance of national security.

The commission is in the position of defining the involvement of private companies in the space initiative. Along these lines, Zuber said that “there is never going to be a profit in this, at least not in our lifetime. This is not a money-making operation.”

However, the private community could stand to gain from the technological innovations made during the course of the space program. In the past, many medical devices, such as pacemakers and MRI/CAT scans, have stemmed from technology initially developed for space exploration.

When asked to comment on the prospect of the newly launched space program resulting in similar benefits, Zuber said that, at this early stage, it is hard to foresee the broad spectrum of gains that will come out of the space program.

High expectations for exploration

Zuber expects that the revamped space initiative would motivate young people to move toward scientific and technical fields.

Zuber also said that a huge advantage of the nation’s renewed space exploration will be the intellectual capital that will enable the United States to remain at the forefront of science and technology and to maintain our “preeminence in the world.”

“This is a lofty and grand vision. Make no mistake about it. This is as big as it gets,” Zuber said. She said that in her mind, the greatest measure of the program’s success will be when “man on mars” appears on the “ten most important things that happened in the world” list.