Wednesday, August 05, 2009

White House Panel Fields Pitch For Mars Mission

LIVE IMAGES: The images above are from live video feeds in the Launch Complex 39 area at Kennedy Space Center. They will automatically refresh to the most up-to-the-minute image every 30 seconds.

BLOGGER NOTE, 11:37 AM: The STS-128 crew is arriving at Kennedy Space Center. The astronauts are taxiing their T-38 training jets onto the apron at the south end of the shuttle landing strip here. NASA Shuttle Launch Director Mike leinbach and astronaut Jerry Ross are greeting the crew. It appears that the crew's statement to the media might not be broadcast live on the NASA TV Public Channel while the Augustine Panel is wrapping up.

The United States should skip the moon and go straight to Mars because the red planet offers a great national challenge and the chance to determine whether life might be common throughout the universe, an outspoken advocate told a presidential panel today.

Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society, told the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Review Committee that the panel has a unique opportunity to encourage President Obama to set a bold course for the nation's space program.

"I think this is potentially a great moment. It's a great moment because it's a moment in which great things are possible," Zubrin told the panel.

"You've got a new administration which is reexamining everything -- an administration that is committed to audacity and hope and the fierce urgency of now, and which has sufficient political support in Congress to actually implement a bold program should they decide to embrace it," he said.

"The American people want and deserve a space program that is really going somewhere. By taking decisive action, by making decisive recommendations to break us out of this stagnation that we've had in the space program for several decades, for four decades," he added. "Four decades of stagnation is enough."

NASA's fleet of robotic Martian explorers have uncovered almost certain evidence that Mars once was awash with water, and that liquid water -- and perhaps microbial life -- still exists below the surface of the red planet.

Zubrin said the nation should send astronauts on human expeditions to determine whether there is life on Mars -- a discovery that would imply life likely exists on Earth-like planets in solar systems spread throughout the universe.

"This is worth finding out," he said. This is something that thinking men and women have wondered about for thousands of years."

Zubrin said the scientific opportunities for research on the moon pales when compared to the discovery potential of human expeditions to Mars.

"There is no comparable science to be done on the moon," he said. "Somebody can get a paper published in the Journal of Geophysical Research out of that, but that is not something that changes humanity's worldview. This does. So Mars is vastly more important scientifically than the moon or other alternate destinations that are also in reach of the human space flight program."

The challenge presented by Mars missions also would spawn a new generation of American scientists and engineers, he said.

"I believe that civilizations are like individuals. We thrive when we are challenged. We stagnate when we are not. And a humans-to-Mars program would be a tremendous bracing challenge for our society, and particular for our youth. It would say to every young person in this country, 'Learn your science and you can be part of pioneering new worlds,'" Zubrin said.

"You are not going to challenge the youth of today with the idea of replicating the technological feats of their grandparent's generation."

ABOUT THE IMAGE: Click to enlarge and save the image captured by NASA's Spirit rover on its 1,871st Martian day, or sol. The mound on the horizon in the upper left is informally called "Von Braun" and is one of the features that rover team has designated as a possible investigation site in future months. From the location where Spirit was when the image was taken, Von Braun is about 525 feet away. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. You can also click to enlarge and save the second image, a global view of Mars shot by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA.

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