Expert panel: NASA’s next moonshot is a gateway to Mars

Renowned alumnus Bill Gerstenmaier joins panelists discussing the future of human space missions. Also, the Lafayette Meteorite returns.

Purdue University’s multifaceted ties to space exploration sparkled as a crowd of more than 400 cheered two homecomings during the event “What IF We Blaze a Path to Mars?” on April 25 in Loeb Playhouse.

The Lafayette Meteorite returns to Purdue University.The return to campus — by student-led petition — of the Lafayette Meteorite kicked off the event, but it was followed by another homecoming, as Bill Gerstenmaier (AAE ’77) returned to campus to participate in the panel discussion of space exploration and policy.

Purdue President Mitch Daniels announced to the crowd of engineers, planetary scientists, physicists and space enthusiasts that Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, would receive the University’s one honorary doctorate this year.

Gerstenmaier joined Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, and Jonathan Lunine, professor and director of the Cornell University Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, on the panel to discuss a variety of topics related to space exploration and policy, including plans to return to the moon and send humans to Mars.

President Mitch Daniels leads a panel discussion on  What IF We Blaze a Path to Mars? with Jonathan Lunine, Bill Gerstenmaier and Mary Lynne Dittmar.Along with others, Daniels, Lunine and Dittmar co-authored  the 2014 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report “Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration.”

Sustainable Human Presence in Space

Vice President Mike Pence on March 26 announced a goal of humans returning to the moon in 2024, saying at the National Space Council meeting in Alabama: “The first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts launched from rockets from American soil.”

NASA has embraced the goal — which moves up its previous lunar landing goal of 2028 by four years — and looks to make it another giant leap by turning the moon into a stepping stone on the path to Mars. New technology will be created and demonstrated on lunar missions, which NASA intends to make much more frequent through lasting infrastructure, according to the panel.

“We talk about going back to the moon; that’s the wrong nomenclature,” Gerstenmaier said. “We want to go forward to the moon. When we go forward to the moon, we go in a different way than we went before. We’ve got to go in a sustainable manner with international partners, with the commercial sector. It’s going to take every one of us — it’s going to take every university — it’s going to take all of us pulling together to make this happen.”

Gateway Configuration

The panel frequently mentioned NASA’s plans to create the a small spaceship that will orbit the moon and serve as a reusable command module, way station for lunar surface missions, and temporary home for a crew. It will contain living quarters, laboratories for science and research, and docking ports for visiting spacecraft, according to NASA.

Leaving significant infrastructure on or orbiting the moon, like the Gateway, will allow the U.S. and its international partners to do more dynamic missions and eventually send humans to Mars, Gerstenmaier said.

Gerstenmaier said NASA is proceeding on the necessary procurements and a budget amendment to receive additional funding to support the plan.

The Apollo Myth

The panel thoughtfully answered questions raised by Daniels about public interest in manned spaceflight and the federal budget.

“There is a myth that the American public was behind Apollo from day one,” Dittmar said. “In fact, the American public was not behind Apollo until after the [moon] landing, and then the American public was behind Apollo. The American public has been ambivalent about human space exploration for the last several decades.”

There is actually much more interest in spaceflight now than in recent decades because of NASA’s strong social media presence and the rise of commercial spacecraft and the marketing of the companies behind it, Dittmar added.

Lunine said, “It is worth pointing out that during the peak of the Apollo development, NASA’s budget was more than 4% of the federal budget. We’re talking about now going from a half percent to 1%.”

Dittmar said the key to gaining public and political support is explaining the “Why?” behind space exploration and human missions.

“The answer as to ‘Why?’ is really simple. It’s about American leadership,” she said. “Leadership in space has been something that has been endemic to America for going on 60 years. … We dare not let that lapse. … That ability to bring people together, to bring nations together and to demonstrate leadership is a gift that we have earned and dare not give away.”

Tremendous Opportunity

As evidence of an auspicious point in time for human space exploration, Gerstenmaier cited NASA’s work with the private space industry including Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner  and SpaceX’s Dragon Cargo Ship. In addition, he noted NASA’s Orion deep space explorer and Space Launch System.

The panel also referenced the work of Blue Origin on additional launch vehicles and the space tourism industry in general.

“Once in a lifetime in your career do you get a chance to see this much hardware, to be involved in tests, working at this level,” Gerstenmaier said. “It’s a great time. For the students: It is an unbelievable time to come into this industry, get involved, get in tests, get in hardware. Gain that experience. You will gain experience that it would take in my life a lifetime to learn —  you’re going to be able to get it in months. So this is an awesome time to be in this business.”

He elaborated on the work with private industry and how the government “lowers the risk to where industry can innovate and move forward” and then can buy and use the services created by the companies.

“We need to think about where the right place for government is,” Gerstenmaier said. “Sometimes I use a chart and on the left hand side it says ‘explorer.’ And exploring is the stuff the government ought to be doing. So if there is any technology that needs to be distributed to everyone, that’s this explorer side. Then on the other side of my chart I put ‘development’ and that’s where the private sector can then take that technology and then go use it …. If the government does it, it is available to everyone to use and it brings a whole bunch of industry forward to do this development side where we can hire services. And there is competition on that side that helps keep costs down.”

Student Response

One of the many students attending the event was Carlisle Wishard, a second-year graduate student pursuing a PhD in planetary science. She also had the opportunity to hear from the panelists in an engineering class and an informal lunch with students.

“I enjoyed the discussions between all of the panelists about space policy and the political nature of space,” she said. “I am a planetary scientist, so I hopefully one day will either be working in academia like Johnathan Lunine or working at NASA like Bill Gerstenmaier.”

She also was excited about the return of the Lafayette Meteorite.

“I study the history of Mars and I am very interested in ancient Martian rocks,” she said. “Because we have yet to bring samples back from the surface of Mars, meteorites are all we have to study the geology of the planet.”

Matthew Powell, a junior studying aerospace engineering, attended the event. He also is the director of research and development for Purdue Orbital, a student organization hoping to be the first of its kind to put a satellite into lower Earth orbit.

“I came into aerospace engineering because I’m absolutely fascinated by the idea of human spaceflight,” he said. “So hearing that it is once again back on the table and they are making a large push for it again, it gives me jitters. I get super excited for it.”

Jonathan Webb, a junior studying aerospace engineering who is program director for Purdue Orbital, said he attended the event because he values the work of the panelists and thinks space exploration is “some of the most important work that humanity can do.”

Of Purdue’s 150 anniversary Ideas Festival events, Webb added:

“I worked in a deli in high school. And right before I left for college, one of my co-workers gave me advice: ‘Whatever you do, question everything.’ I think this Ideas Festival allows you to do just that. It allows you to take in other people’s inputs and learn from the experts, but also formulate your own opinions.”


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