What the Heck is Going on at NASA
About the Speaker
Dr. Wendell Mendell is a Planetary Scientist serving as Assistant Administrator for Exploration in the Directorate for Astromaterials Research & Exploration Science of the NASA Johnson Space Center, where he has been employed since 1963. He is married and has four children. Dr. Mendell has a B.S. in physics from CalTech; a M.S. in physics from UCLA; and a M.S. in Space Science and a Ph.D. in Space Physics and Astronomy from Rice University. His scientific research focus is remote sensing of planetary surfaces, particularly specializing in thermal emission radiometry and spectroscopy of the Moon.
Since 1982, his activities in NASA have focused on planning and advocacy of human exploration of the solar system, especially on the establishment of a permanent human base on the Moon. His interests lay as much with policy issues as with technical solutions. He is most well known as the editor of the volume, Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century; and he received the 1988 Space Pioneer Award for Science and Engineering from the National Space Society for this work. Dr. Mendell is currently detailed to the Constellation Systems Program Office as Chief, Office for Lunar & Planetary Exploration.
He acts as a liaison between the scientific community and the Program responsible for implementing the Vision for Space Exploration. He is an Associate Faculty of the International Space University. At the ISU, he has led Design Projects for an International Lunar Base (1988), International Mars Mission (1991), International Lunar Farside Observatory and Science Station (1993), Vision 20/20 [a sampling of the future as seen by young space professionals] (1995), and Space Tourism: From Dream to Reality (2000). He belongs to several professional scientific and engineering societies.
He is most active in the International Academy of Astronautics, where he is currently serving on Academic Commission III; and in the AIAA, where he has chaired the Space Science and Astronomy Technical Committee and sits on the International Activities Committee.He served on (and chaired) the Executive Committee of the Aerospace Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
He has been editor for nine technical volumes and has published over 40 articles in professional journals and conference proceedings. He is also author of numerous abstracts and short papers presented at technical conferences.
On February 1, 2010, the federal budget for Fiscal Year 2011 was released. NASA received an increase, unlike almost any other federal agency. At the same time, the budget revealed that the Constellation Program would be cancelled and that NASA would look to private sector providers for transportation of cargo, and eventually crew members, to the International Space Station. The Constellation Program had included a human return to the Moon by the year 2020, and the program plans called for a permanent surface facility capable of supporting human explorers. In the FY2011 announcement, the prescription of a lunar objective was replaced by a concept called “flexible path” that was advertised to open possibilities of other types of human missions beyond low Earth orbit.
The policy direction has polarized the U.S. space community, where the reactions have been swift and polemical. The new policy has been described both as the death knell of human space exploration and as the only hope to save human space exploration. Some members of Congress have threatened legal action based on the current law regarding appropriation of funds to NASA, which states that Constellation cannot be cancelled without prior consultation with Congress. As might be expected, some of the reaction is directly related to losses or gains of jobs in districts associated with NASA facilities.
However, various statements show high emotional content, suggesting that personal belief systems have been challenged. Meanwhile, many details of the new policy are not yet clear; and some aspects seem to be shifting in response to political reaction. The final direction for NASA will not be known until the FY2011 budget has been passed by Congress and signed by the President. I will draw upon my 28 years’ of studying, writing, and speaking on the topic of future human exploration beyond low Earth orbit to discuss the various issues at stake and the historical context for the debate.
My own work has had a central theme of lunar exploration and development, but I have also come to believe that human exploration will never be more than a political sideshow until a significant economic sector can be created in space off of the Earth. Disclaimer: The views presented will be my own and in no way reflect official policies of the NASA.
Grand Forks, ND
Mendell, Wendell, "What the Heck is Going on at NASA" (2010). Space Studies Colloquium. 22.