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lunar outpost
The head of the Russian space agency believes humans should next return to the Moon, even while NASA officials are planning human missions to near Earth asteroids. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Human space exploration: asteroids versus the Moon?

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Two years ago, the Obama Administration changed the direction of the nation’s human spaceflight programs in a number of ways, including the destinations of those efforts. Gone was the goal of the previous administration of a human return to the Moon by 2020, a date that was looking increasingly unrealistic in the eyes of many, including the Augustine Committee that reviewed NASA’s plans in 2009. In its place was something resembling the “flexible path” approach in that committee’s final report, with the Moon replaced as an initial beyond-Earth destination by a near Earth asteroid. President Obama established a 2025 goal for a human mission to an asteroid in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010, also setting a goal of a human mission to Mars in the mid-2030s.

“We arrived at the conclusion that the Moon is supposed to be the next target” for human exploration, Popovkin said at the GLEX conference.

From a technical standpoint, a human mission to a near Earth asteroid could be done solely by the United States given both existing capabilities and those under development, like the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. Yet, from a financial standpoint, particular in an era of constrained and even declining budgets, it’s likely the US will seek international partners for an asteroid mission, and almost certainly for later missions to Mars. But do the potential partners of the US also want to participate in human asteroid missions?

The recent Global Space Exploration Conference, or GLEX, held in Washington, DC last month by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), offered some mixed messages about international interest in human asteroid missions. Some space agency executives instead spoke openly about going back to the Moon, comments that have some support among former NASA officials who believe that human lunar exploration will have greater support internationally.

Perhaps the boldest endorsement of the Moon, and not near Earth asteroids, as the next destination for human exploration came from Vladimir Popovkin, general director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Speaking at a plenary session at GLEX on May 22 that featured the leaders or other top officials of six space agencies, Popovkin suggested the Moon, and not the asteroids, was the preferred destination of the Russian space program.

“We arrived at the conclusion that the Moon is supposed to be the next target” for human exploration, Popovkin said through an interpreter. “We’re not trying to convince you that we shouldn’t be doing anything in the area of Mars exploration, asteroid exploration, just that, in our professional opinion, today we have much better chances to come up with very productive and tangible results when concentrating on the Moon.”

Popovkin said he didn’t envision simply repeating the Apollo missions of four decades ago. “We are rather talking about establishing permanent stationary bases on the surface,” he said. Upcoming Russian robotic missions, like Luna-Glob, slated for launch in 2014, are intended to support that long-term vision of a human base.

He added, though, that he envisioned the development of a lunar base to be an international venture. “We fully realize that this type of effort, and the magnitude of this effort, could only be based on international cooperation,” he said.

“The next learning step, the next outward step, is the Moon,” Griffin said. “I think in the longer, broader reach of space policy, that is the path to which we will return.”

That call for a human lunar base got at least a modest endorsement from another panelist at the GLEX session. Yuichi Yamaura, associate executive director of the Japanese space agency JAXA, called the Moon “the next destination of mankind” and suggested that Japan would be interested in a role, perhaps springboarding off its current partnership on the International Space Station (ISS). “We have a responsibility to continue the ISS program,” he said. “That may be in preparation for human activity on the Moon.”

At a press conference at GLEX later that day, former NASA administrator Michael Griffin welcomed Popovkin’s comments. “I think General Popovkin’s comments this morning were on target,” Griffin said, emphasizing that he was expressing his own opinion and not speaking for anyone else, including the AIAA, where Griffin serves as president.

If the goal of human spaceflight is to extend humanity’s presence beyond Earth, Griffin argued that the more efficient way to do this would be first to return to the Moon, just a few days’ travel time from the Earth. “However interesting or attractive missions to the asteroids might be,” he said, “I think the starting point beyond space station is the Moon for a host of engineering and operational reasons that, to me, make sense.”

A return to the Moon, Griffin suggested, would be better for international cooperation, including the capabilities of potential partners. “If this is to be a cooperative enterprise, we need to go first to places that our partners are capable of going,” he said. “So even if the United States were to push directly for a mission to an asteroid or a mission to Mars, and leaving aside funding, this is not a mission that our international partners are quite ready to take on.”

“The next learning step, the next outward step, is the Moon,” Griffin concluded. “I think in the longer, broader reach of space policy, that is the path to which we will return.”

Griffin’s comments echoed those made a week earlier by another former NASA official. “The international space community, which had been shifting attention to the Moon in anticipation of that being the next US focus for exploration, felt blindsided” by the shift in US policy two years ago, said Scott Pace, a former associate administrator under Griffin and currently the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, in a Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) luncheon speech on May 15. “Countries in Asia, such as Japan, India, China, South Korea, saw the Moon as a challenging but feasible destination for robotic exploration and a practical focus for human space exploration.”

“I don’t know anybody other than the US who seriously argues for the asteroids and the Mars part going forward,” Pace said. “It’s in the trade space because it has to be: it’s US policy.”

The shift in US interest to asteroid exploration, Pace said, may have been taken unintentionally by those countries as a sign that the US was only interested in working with Europe and Russia on human exploration. “They could imagine ways they could participate” in international lunar exploration in some form, he said. “They can’t really imagine that when they look at an asteroid mission or a Mars mission.”

International discussions of human space exploration architectures, Pace said, agree that Mars is the ultimate goal for human missions, but differ on whether the first step beyond the ISS should be missions to asteroids or to the Moon. “I don’t know anybody other than the US who seriously argues for the asteroids and the Mars part going forward,” he said. “It’s in the trade space because it has to be: it’s US policy.”

A shift back to the Moon could help align human spaceflight with foreign policy, Pace suggested. “Such an alignment could enable a more sustainable rationale for human space exploration while helping create a more stable international environment for all space activities,” he said. “A multilateral program to explore the Moon as the first step would be a symbolic and practical means of creating a broader international framework for space cooperation. In concert with discussions of an international space code of conduct, a broad program of human space exploration would help garner support for other international objectives in support of US interests, both on Earth and in space.”

While both Griffin and Pace emphasized that they were expressing their own opinions, those views may carry significant weight as both are advising presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on space issues. Romney has said little about space policy, stating in a January 27 speech in Florida that he would bring in experts from throughout the space community to determine the best direction for the nation in space (see “Campaign lunacy”, The Space Review, January 30, 2012).

However, Romney hasn’t shown the same enthusiasm for human lunar exploration that his former challenger, Newt Gingrich, expressed when he called for a human lunar base by 2020. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the Moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired,’” Romney said in a January 26 debate with Gingrich and other Republican candidates in Florida.

A month later, campaigning in Michigan, Romney again indicated he didn’t share Gingrich’s urgency for a human return to the Moon. “I know China is headed to the Moon. They’re planning on going to the Moon, and some people say, oh, we’ve got to get to the Moon, we’ve got to get there in a hurry to prove we can get there before China,” he told a town hall audience in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on February 24. “It’s like, guys, we were there a long time ago, all right? And when you get there would you bring back some of the stuff we left?”

Romney’s past comments provided campaigners for President Obama a bit of fodder given Griffin’s endorsement of a human return to the Moon. “Given Romney’s promise to fire anyone who proposed putting a colony on the moon,” asked a press release issued by Obama’s Florida campaign office on May 24, “will Romney keep his promise by firing Griffin?”

There’s no evidence, as one might imagine, that the Romney campaign has done just that. However, the various comments and deliberations suggest the future direction of human space exploration, particularly efforts that will require or at least highly benefit from international cooperation, remains unsettled. “We are trying to avoid competition between destinations,” said European Space Agency director general Jean-Jacques Dordain during the plenary session at GLEX. Yet a competition between the Moon and near Earth asteroids may be shaping up on the international stage.