Every year, New York’s Hayden Planetarium hosts a debate in memory of the renowned science and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. The topic of the most recent debate, held on March 15, 2010, was “Moon, Mars and Beyond: Where Next for the Manned Space Program.” The debaters — or more accurately, panelists — were all extraordinarily well qualified to discuss the subject:
Kenneth Ford, expert on artificial intelligence and human cognition, and chairman of the NASA Advisory Council.
Lester Lyles, retired Air Force General, formerly in charge of diverse military space programs.
Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute, one of the world’s leading lunar scientists and a major advocate for a sustained human presence on the Moon.
Steven Squyres of Cornell University, co-leader of and spokesman for the Mars Exploration Rover Project.
Robert Zubrin, aerospace engineer, popular writer, and leader of the movement to launch a quick and aggressive manned Mars program.
And last but by no means least, the moderator: Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, space expert, television star, director of the Hayden Planetarium — and (like me) a graduate of the Bronx High School of Science.
The event proved to be wildly popular, despite very modest publicity. Hundreds of people were standing on line when I arrived, a half hour early, and hundreds more joined later. Every seat in the very large auditorium was taken, and a large overflow crowd watched the debate by simulcast. Many of the remarks — particularly those by Zubrin, but also many others — elicited prolonged cheers and applause.Tyson opened the event, explaining that though billed as a debate, it would in fact be more like an informal discussion, a bunch of interested people sitting around a table at a bar. The reality was rather different, proceeding more like a television interview. After brief opening remarks by each participant, Tyson would ask each panelist a question, sum up the answer, and then ask a related question of the next panelist. In less competent hands, the format might have been stifling. But Tyson’s questions were so cogent and his summations so accurate that he elicited a very lively yet (on the whole) courteous interchange among the panelists.
Toward the end of the event, the format was broken by Buzz Aldrin, who had been invited to participate by telephone. Aldrin proceeded to lay out his program for manned spaceflight in intricate detail and at very great length. Tyson tried to cut Aldrin short several times, but it’s hard to dominate someone who isn’t physically present, and it’s equally hard to say no to the second man to walk on the Moon. After Aldrin had finished, the format was more open and direct, proceeding soon to questions from the audience — several of which were more statements or tirades than questions at all.Tyson had intended the debate to focus on whether we should proceed directly to Mars (as advocated most strongly by Zubrin) or use the Moon as a trial and staging exercise, as proposed (though never funded) by the Bush administration. But in the interim between the planning and the event, the Obama administration had proposed yet another course, focusing neither on the Moon nor Mars but instead on the development of new technologies and the privatization of space. Zubrin reserved his greatest scorn for this new plan, pronouncing it to be a death sentence for human spaceflight, and stating that NASA had never accomplished anything useful except in pursuit of a lofty and specific goal, like the first human Moon landing. All the other panelists had more nuanced responses, ranging from very strong though mild-mannered support of NASA’s technology programs from Ford and Lyles to an agreement by Spudis and Squyres (and perhaps Tyson) that NASA needed to be more goal-oriented but not necessarily fixated on Mars as Zubrin is. I can only touch on a few highlights of the discussion; it ranged over a very wide range of subjects. Spudis is perhaps the strongest advocate for the Moon as a destination in its own right, not just a steppingstone to Mars. Squyres brought up asteroids as a potential destination, suggesting that mining asteroids is the most promising commercial application of spaceflight beyond Earth orbit. Several people alluded to the possibility of landing on Mars’s moon Phobos, a proposal that’s taken very seriously by the human-spaceflight community, though it's never been noticed much by the wider public.
Almost everybody talked about the commercialization of space. Many people spoke, both pro and con, about space as a demonstration of national prestige and prowess. Intriguingly though perhaps not surprisingly, retired general Lyles was the strongest advocate of international cooperation, and the strongest opponent of using space as an instrument of national competition.
I was intrigued that nobody either on the panel or in the audience questioned the aggressive pursuit of human spaceflight. In my mind that’s very much an open question — which is not the same thing as saying that the answer to the question is necessarily no. But refusing to take such a fundamental question seriously, taking human spaceflight as axiomatic and not enquiring into its rationale, is a sign of weakness rather than strength.
But for better or worse, this was a panel and audience of true believers — and a very lively, fascinating, and invigorating bunch it was.