President Barack Obama wanted NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid instead of the moon as a first step to Mars, but his presidency is ending soon, and so is his space legacy.
Now, members of Congress are taking charge of NASA’s goals with the power of the purse, and they’re instructing the space agency to head back to the moon.
Gone are the days when a “go it alone” approach to space travel was possible; now, with countries around the world launching their own space missions, it’s more important than ever to cooperate with our international partners.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos is building a lunar taxi it plans to park at the International Space Station to help ferry astronauts to the moon’s surface. Likewise, the European Space Agency has plans to begin construction of a lunar colony on the moon’s surface using 3D printers within the next five years.
China has joined the space race also, with plans to build its own space station, Hubble telescope, and recyclable rockets, and even India is shifting into high gear with its recent launch of a prototype reusable rocket. The United States’ lunar plans remain sadly blank, however, and that has members of Congress worried about losing the space race.
When Obama took office he set the short-term goals for NASA saying a manned trip to Mars was more important to the space agency than returning to the surface of the moon, according to Ars Technica.
“We’ve been there before.”
That manned trip to Mars is a little beyond our reach at the moment, however, and Congress sees a trip back to the moon as a way to establish a robust space industry capable of traveling to the red planet.
Establishing an outpost on the moon would allow America to secure the mining rights and business opportunities associated with a lunar colony; and allow the development of the necessary technologies needed for a longer trip to Mars.
It would also allow for the construction of a space gas station on the moon’s surface that could mine lunar deposits to help fuel Mars bound spacecraft.
To help accomplish this, Congress recently stripped NASA of all funds for its asteroid mission and instructed the space agency to prepare for a trip back to the moon’s surface, according to Ars Technica.
“Develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.”
Two members of Congress are leading the charge back to the moon: California Democrat Mike Honda and Oklahoma Republican Jim Bridenstine, who have both taken a lead in U.S. civil and military space programs, reports Ars Technica.
“There is no better proving ground than the Moon for NASA to test the technologies and techniques needed to successfully meet the goal of sending humans to Mars by the mid 2030s.”
The other argument; the one espoused by Barack Obama for the last several years saying we should head directly for the red planet asks: if we don’t go to Mars now, then when will we?
That theory is one supported by SpaceX founder Elon Musk who recently set the ambitious goal of sending cargo rockets to Mars every 26 months starting in 2018. With that time table, SpaceX could send a manned mission to Mars in 2024 with arrival expected in 2015.
While Musk’s plans are more grandiose and fantastic, they also run a greater risk of failure; there are no pit stops between here and Mars.
What do you think should be NASA’s next goal?
[Photo credit: Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA via AP]