As the Obama presidency begins to wind down and the frenzy surrounding the selection of his replacement rises to a crescendo, the question of what impact the change of administration will have on NASA and the space program will have has arisen. Wired cautioned on Monday that next year will not be the occasion for another, disruptive change of course, with the Journey to Mars ripped out and a new plan instituted after a lengthy deliberation. The caution has a point though one could point out that 2010, when Obama assassinated the Constellation program in the middle of the night, was not the time for that sort of thing anyway.
Wired offers an out to staying the course by pointing out that the path is not well defined.
“Those guidelines leave plenty of room for the next administration to put its mark on America’s human space exploration program—without ripping it up at the roots. NASA’s Journey to Mars report provides a flexible, three-phase concept for progress. The first phase, which includes Scott Kelly’s year-long mission on the ISS, tests the capabilities necessary for deep space exploration in low-Earth orbit. Next comes the ‘Proving Ground’ phase, in which astronauts will learn how to live and work in the deep space around the Moon. Finally, the “Earth Independent” phase will culminate in a human voyage to Mars.
“But NASA has yet to fill in the blanks when it comes to the Proving Ground phase. Beyond initial plans for a controversial asteroid redirect mission, there’s a gap between immediate human spaceflight plans—the ISS and the commercial crew program—and the United States’ long-term objective of sending humans to Mars. By making more concrete and detailed plans for the Proving Ground phase, the next administration can keep America’s human space exploration program on track and make progress toward Mars at the same time.”
Funny that the 10 or 15-year gap got mentioned. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon and a passionate advocate for going to Mars, has some ideas along those lines. “Aldrin and other experts believe Nasa is overlooking an important part of space exploration: a permanent, manned base on the moon that would prepare us for the mission to Mars.”
Aldrin is just reflecting what diverse organizations such as the European Space Agency, MIT, and a think tank called Next Gen Space have been saying. The path to the Journey to Mars goes through the moon. The moon would not only be a practice ground for Mars but also would be a source of rocket fuel for voyages into deep space to destinations such as Mars. Mars expeditions would become a lot simpler and, even given the investment in the moon, cheaper in the long run.
The next president could, therefore, make a speech, sign an executive order, or whatever and order NASA to add the moon to its milestones on the way to Mars. He or she will have to find a way to avoid the fate that two previous return to the moon efforts suffered. A new book by this writer, Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon? has some ideas along those lines.