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Catherine Pilachowski
Department of Astronomy

Hal Kibbey
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Wednesday, May 5, 2004

IUB astronomer testifies before President's Commission on U.S. Space Exploration Policy

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Catherine Pilachowski

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NOTE: Catherine Pilachowski will be back in Bloomington on Wednesday morning (May 5). At that time she can be reached at 812-855-6913 or For assistance, contact Hal Kibbey at 812-855-0074 or For information about the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, see

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Achieving a balance between space science and human space exploration should be an important goal of the nation's space policy, Indiana University Professor Catherine Pilachowski told the President's Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy yesterday (May 4) in New York City.

Pilachowski, the Daniel Kirkwood Chair in Astronomy at IU Bloomington, was invited to testify at the commission's hearings in her capacity as president of the American Astronomical Society, and she spoke on behalf of the nation's astronomers.

"This commission is right to be concerned with the sustainability of a long-term vision of exploration," Pilachowski said in her testimony. "This sustainability depends, of course, on the degree to which the public accepts and supports exploration of the solar system and the broader universe. Superficially, NASA enjoys broad public appeal. The Mars rover Web sites see millions of hits per week, and the Hubble Space Telescope Web site has recorded hundreds of billions of independent visits. It is easy to excite kids about planets, black holes and space travel. Yet even the huge popularity of HST and the Mars rovers is not sufficient to sustain public support for a broad program of exploration."

She explained that the students whom she teaches in introductory astronomy classes don't respond to the traditional images of space exploration that once captivated the nation when men walked on the moon.

"Those kids who once were excited about Mars and black holes find themselves, as young adults, confronted by cancer, AIDS, poverty, racial discord, war, global warming and environmental pollution," she told the commission. "As many of us did at the same age, they feel a sense of responsibility to solve, or at least address, those problems. They are not persuaded by the manifest destiny of the human race in space, nor do they believe that space exploration contributes to economic, social or technological progress. They see space exploration as irrelevant to their lives and to the solution of problems on Earth. My students would prefer to see their tax money spent solving Earth's problems rather than on space exploration."

The solution, she told the commission, is to take advantage of the ongoing scientific exploration of the universe that has been one of NASA's most visible and successful programs for the last few decades, while implementing a new vision for human exploration of the Moon and Mars.

"To engage the public over the long haul, NASA needs to articulate the economic, social, technical and intellectual value of its exploration program in a way that appeals to young adults," Pilachowski said. "Science can assist in this task by providing a constant stream of new discoveries enabled by space exploration. A broader science element to the space program that opens up many more avenues of intellectual stimulation can make the interest in exploration stronger and more sustainable. Understanding our universe, how it formed, how it changes over time, the details of interaction between its various constituents, and how all the myriad objects change is fundamentally inspirational to humans."

Astronomers have much to contribute to the new vision for NASA, she emphasized, but this new vision must do more than just revive the "spirit of Apollo" that took us to the moon.

"This time, the vision must transcend short-term goals," she said. "We've begun by mastering our local neighborhood, learning to operate in nearby space via the International Space Station and through robotic exploration. We must move forward to develop first a sustained presence on the moon, and then the capability for operations on Mars. With the development of new, more robust space infrastructure, including new robotic and tele-robotic capabilities, opportunities for exploration naturally beckon."

The National Research Council's report, "Issues and Opportunities Regarding the U.S. Space Program," stresses the importance of the interplay between science and exploration, she said, and it urges NASA to apply the principles of balance and complementarity.

"NASA's historically broad view of its own role in science has been to provide the space tools needed to address the important scientific problems that advance human understanding of the universe," Pilachowski said. "With this view, both science and exploration can thrive to the benefit of each, with creative tension rather than conflict. The golden age of astronomy will shine even brighter as we take advantage of new space infrastructure to approach and answer some of the most fundamental questions about the universe."