A manned mission to Mars is still described by those who aspire for its possibility as the “ultimate objective” for the U.S. space program. However, it is too distant in time and simply too costly to serve as a guide for short-term, manned space activities.
What plans should we be making beyond this activity? In recent years under the Obama administration, without a clearly stated strategic direction for our civil space program, we’ve witnessed it collapse and our space work force depart.
The Obama administration terminated NASA’s Constellation program, which would have returned U.S. astronauts to the moon, the space agency has proposed a human mission to an asteroid — a small asteroid that is orbiting the Sun in close proximity to Earth — as a substitute to help gain deep-space mission experience and knowledge.
However, asteroids are not very accessible, thus a realistic target that would permit somewhat easy and safe human access has not yet been located. Unlike the moon, if the launch window to an asteroid is missed, it could be many months until Earth is once again in the correct position for departure.
A team of scientists and engineers who studied this dilemma in some detail developed a concept in which a small asteroid could be captured and brought to near-Earth, or what is referred to as cislunar space. After, humans could be launched directly to said asteroid, which would then be close to Earth, increasing their relative safety. Once there, the crew could examine and take samples of the rock for a duration of time before returning to Earth.
Although this plan seems to be the prep for deep-space travel, in reality, it offers very little by way of our knowledge of asteroids, and does not adequately prepare crews for future planetary missions.
The moon, however, is in essence a miniature planet. It is of surprising complexity and accessible at any time through a relatively short four-day journey. Necessary conditions to contend with during planetary spaceflight, such as extended stays in partial-gravity and radiation protection, can easily be studied and mastered on the moon.
The moon’s geology tells us about its own history and allows us to reconstruct the impact history of the Earth. The moon, perhaps most importantly, contains critical material and energy resources that would allow us to create new space-faring capabilities. We have now learned that the moon has 100 times more water than previously thought. On this factor, the Sentinel noted that:
Water (hydrogen and oxygen) is the most useful material in space — it supports human life, protects us from radiation, can be used to store energy, and is the most powerful chemical rocket propellant known. The poles of the moon contain huge quantities of water, trapped in the dark craters close to areas in near-permanent sunlight. This gift of proximity would allow people, in concert with robots, to work for extended periods on the moon — harvesting lunar resources to supply and nurture a permanent space transportation system.
After humans have created the capability to begin resupplying ourselves off-Earth, we’ll have the ability to go to the other planets — and not just Mars, but to anywhere in the solar system. It is almost like a game of hopscotch in the cosmos. Paul D. Spudis, in a guest column for the Orlando Sentinel, states:
We have a choice. We can create a new, permanent space-faring capability by going to the moon, or we can pursue the asteroid mission, which is reminiscent of earlier flag-and-footprint missions but lacking measurable, long-term value.
We went to the moon in the 1960s to prove that it could be done; we would return to the moon 50 years later to prove that we can use its material and energy resources to create new capabilities and commerce. A cislunar transportation system, developed and powered with lunar resources, will extend our reach into deep space and revolutionize spaceflight.
Commentary from the Blogger:
In cannot be underrated just how important the space program was, and still can be, to our shared national pride and identity. In the 1960’s, it was perhaps the biggest accomplishment of President Kennedy’s brief administration to set a goal to reach the moon and meet it.
President Obama has destroyed our national pride for having the most accomplished space program in the world. He has turned NASA into a Muslim outreach program, and bankrupted the budget, which has come to rely more and more on philanthropic funding.
It is truly a shame for the Unites States and all of humanity to have this nation taken out of the space game so to speak. If we want to perpetuate our species, then we must always have a nation tasked with the ever-virtuous goal of pushing farther and farther into the cosmos.
It must always remain a priority of the United States to further the human race, as we are the most deserving of our kind to take the message of humanity into other worlds. This planet will not last forever, and we are ill-equipped to meet this challenge, as we have allowed our own selfish needs to consume a budget that should be focused less on ourselves, and more to our children.
When will we take this debate to another level?