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lunar lander illustration
A return to the Moon make make the most sense if NASA wants to work with international partners that don't have the capabilities or budgets to join in human missions to Mars. (credit: NASA)

The Moon or Mars?


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The National Research Council recently released their report on NASA’s plans for human spaceflight (see “A new pathway to Mars”, The Space Review, June 9, 2014). The report lays out the possible targets for human exploration:

“The technical analysis completed for this report—discussed fully in Chapter 4 of the report—shows clearly that for the foreseeable future, the only feasible destinations for human exploration are the Moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Mars. Among this small set of plausible goals, the most distant and difficult is a landing by human beings on the surface of Mars. Thus the horizon goal for human space exploration is Mars. All long-range space programs, by all potential partners, converge on this goal.”

The report also brings up the topic of international collaboration:

“International collaboration has become an integral part of the space policy of essentially all nations participating in space around the world. It is evident that U.S. near-term goals for human exploration are not aligned with the goals of the nation’s traditional international partners which look toward human operations on the lunar surface.”

Our international partners want to go to the Moon. But President Obama said we’ve been there. NASA administration Charles Bolden said, in effect, “Been there, done that.” Obviously there is a serious disconnect between what the US administration wants and what our international partners want. I have my ideas as to why this disconnect exists.

Obviously there is a serious disconnect between what the US administration wants and what our international partners want.

None of our international partners have been to the Moon with people. Even when Neil Armstrong said it was “one giant leap for mankind”, it was the US that made it. I don’t think other countries feel that they were really part of this accomplishment. Most of their citizens weren’t born when it happened.

Even so, I don’t think this is the reason our partners want to go to the Moon. Instead, it likely comes down to affordability. When foreign leaders ask their space agencies what it would cost to go to Mars and how long of a commitment they would be signing up for, they may get sticker shock. Going to Mars, even for a flags and footprint mission, is a massive long-term commitment. Political terms also don’t last long enough that the glory of the landing has much chance of shining on the politicians currently in office.

Europe’s economy has been stagnant or growing slowly, at best, since 2008. Japan hasn’t had robust sustained growth since the 1980s. Until recently, the US has been in a very slow job growth recovery for the last five years. We just reached the total number of jobs we had before the financial crisis hit in 2008. Many of new jobs are part-time positions or only pay the minimum wage. This is not the time space agencies are going to get significant boosts in spending that the Augustine Committee said would be required for a robust Mars exploration program. In 2009, NASA had a budget of $17.782 billion when the Augustine Committee said an annual boost of $3 billion would be needed. In fiscal year 2014, the budget for NASA is $17.646 billion, and the administration requested even less for 2015. The trend is not in the right direction for any kind of sustainable human spaceflight program.

As much as I would love to see humans land on Mars and then regularly visit, I no longer think it will happen in my lifetime. Trips to Mars have become just like practical nuclear fusion: always thirty years away.

I regularly attend town hall meetings held by my Congressional representative, James Sensenbrenner. These meetings are a microcosm of America. Unless the meeting is in one of the more conservative towns in his district, the attendees are politically divided and the meetings can get quite contentious. Those people interested in space are similarly divided. Within this community there are people who want a human mission to Mars first. There are people who think a visit to an asteroid first is a good idea. There are people who want a return to the Moon. There are people who want the government to turn human spaceflight over to the private sector (with the government still the only entity capable of paying for it). There are people who want to end human spaceflight and only explore the heavens robotically.

As much as I would love to see humans land on Mars and then regularly visit, I no longer think it will happen in my lifetime. Trips to Mars have become just like practical nuclear fusion: always thirty years away. It’s not that I don’t think we could technically pull off trips to the Red Planet. It’s that I really don’t believe that there will be the political will to pay for something that expensive with results that far out anytime soon. Mars will be the goal on the horizon for decades to come.

If NASA continues to dither without coming up with clear near-term goals, I think we risk further decline in budgets for human spaceflight until NASA gets out of the business completely. That is the main reason why I favor developing a plan to expand human operations and exploration in cislunar space. Dramatic returns are possible in shorter periods of time and our potential partners, who can help pay for it, want to go there. This could hopefully end the annual budget declines since 2009. It will also build an infrastructure and develop technology that will make it easier to eventually go to Mars.

If plans are changed to focus on cislunar space, there are those that will argue it will be yet another change of plans. I disagree. I think there are, right now, no clear plans other than to build a rocket and a space capsule and to hope for greater funding down the road. If NASA has clear plans internally where they want to go and how and when they want to get there, we have a right to know because we will potentially be paying for it. It’s the public, after all, who are electing the decision makers. And it is the public who should be able to say yes or no to the plan—if we care enough—through our votes and our voices.

If we focus on the Moon for human exploration, we should not forget about Mars. I would like to see continued more aggressive robotic exploration of Mars hopefully also engaged with international partners. One idea that intrigues me is building a robotic base on Mars that could serve as a testbed and precursor for eventual human missions. A robotic base on Mars could test precision landing of ever larger craft that could include tests of large solar arrays, in situ production of fuel, nuclear power sources, larger and more capable on-site laboratories, robotic assembly and connection of components, testing small greenhouses, large long-range rovers that can return samples to the base for analysis or to return to earth, and more. The possibilities in smaller, more affordable bites are endless. In the meantime we would be learning what it takes to build a settlement farther down the line. I think this would eventually turn a human Mars mission from a horizon goal to a certainty.

A return to the Moon is not a “been there, done that” boring feat. It is in my opinion the logical next step, given the realities of politics and available funding.

The Moon has not, by a long shot, been explored to the point where it can no longer teach us about our solar system and our own planet. Humans have set foot on only six locations that gave us just the briefest of looks at this closest world. Many thousands of geologists, prodding and poking our own planet, are still learning amazing things about the Earth. Just imagine what a close look at the lunar poles or the large impact craters on the far side of the Moon could do to fill in our knowledge on the formation of our solar system.

More than half of the people on this planet were born after the last Apollo mission returned home. I can imagine the next landing in HD video getting much of the world to watch again. The world may quickly lose interest again, but another generation of young children will include those that will be inspired to want to do great things. When they watch the next person press his or her foot into the lunar dust as their grandparents tell them about where they were and what they felt when they watched Neil Armstrong do it for the first time, it will change the courses of many lives again.

A return to the Moon is not a “been there, done that” boring feat. It is in my opinion the logical next step, given the realities of politics and available funding. Whether or not we are building the right rocket for a return to the Moon is a separate issue. Whether or not we should be following a COTS model for a return to the Moon is a separate issue for another day and possibly another article. Instead, I would like to see space advocates coalesce around the idea of affordable and incremental expansion into the solar system to stay. I think if it doesn’t happen that way, we risk the possibility of having the move beyond low Earth orbit getting delayed another generation. Then even a return to the Moon won’t happen in my lifetime, and possibly in the careers of those in school right now.


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