Criticism of NASA’s Moon Plan?

I was reading this article on the Discovery News website, and I’m not sure what to think about it. Essentially, the prize is a manned Mars expedition. What’s in dispute now, is what interim steps are the best way to get there.

As the article points out, it took the loss of the shuttle for the president to push us beyond low earth orbit. I believe we needed this because we had no incentive to do otherwise. The space station was taking forever to complete and, aside from some abstract research, there really was no interest in expanding our presence in space. It was dangerous and no one wanted to take risk.

Well, President Bush, to his credit, set a mandate for us to get to the Moon by 2020. Furthermore, he set a (rather open-ended) goal of of getting to Mars “eventually.” While this isn’t the point of this post, I’d like to take this small tangent and say…Duh. I have no doubt we’ll get to Mars ‘eventually.’ I just want to see it happen before our Sun goes nova.

Back to my point, I think the mandate that the President set forth was very useful. It gave NASA the focus it needed, and it sparked some interest on the part of the American people in the missions that lie ahead in order to accomplish this goal. For example:

  • Complete the assembly of the International Space Station, which, after some major delays, is coming along nicely as of late.
  • Develop the replacement to the STS (Shuttle) Program, which is scheduled for retirement by 2010
  • Retire the STS system per above
  • develop sustainability strategies that will allow for long duration spaceflight and missions to locations beyond low earth orbit

Various prominent figures have spoken up on this issue. Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator; Lou Friedman, Director of the Planetary Society; and Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society to name a few.

Arguments for the Moon Program:

  • Michael Griffin cites NASA’s flat budget. We have to maintain service to low earth orbit for the ISS and other missions. A mission to the Moon allows both of these goals to be met due to more effective use of funds
  • Griffin also notes that although we’ve already been to the moon, we’ve only explored a small fraction of its surface.
  • Other countries, like China and India, are planning missions to the moon. It would be a great blow to national pride if one of these nations achieves this without us while we’re busy playing around with asteroid missions.

Arguments for alternative targets, such as asteroids, as stepping stones to Mars.

  • Lou Friedman is quoted as saying “[Is] the Moon Program enough to drive public interest. Will kids want to step foot on the moon like their grandparents did?”
  • Robert Zubrin feels that a mission to an asteroid can be accomplished in a single 8-year presidential term as compared with the current 2020 target date for a Moon landing. He feels that this is more politically palatable
  • Zubrin also feels that this approach could yield useful engineering data for managing the risk of asteroid strikes on Earth.

I see the validity of both positions, and regardless which argument wins, I’m just happy to see us doing something. However, I think I’m leaning toward the Moon mission as a first step. It’s been so many years since we’ve been there, and we’ve never stayed more than a couple of days. A permanent base there would be a totally different animal and I don’t think the kids are going to see it as redundant. Also, the comfort we find in our past experience will be more than tempered by the technological challenges associated with a permanent lunar base. It also allows us to continue to provide service to the ISS, Hubble, and whatever else we decide to throw up there. Furthermore, it gives us the experience we need for planning a successful Mars mission. I know the latter point is weak because either plan offers this experience, but our experience with past lunar missions could make this option slightly easier.

Besides, what could motivate the American people more than a successful mission to the moon. If I look up at the full moon and think that someone may be looking back at me, you will have won me over, mind, body and soul.

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