Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beyond the Moon

The Planetary Society has released a "Roadmap to Space," a free 20 page PDF document on the future of human spaceflight that proposes an approach somewhat different from the Vision for Space Exploration. Under the Vision, NASA seems to have become fixated on returning to the moon, with Mars and anything else in the solar system as mere afterthoughts. This "roadmap" (actual title "Beyond the Moon") still supports NASA building the Ares launch vehicles and the Orion spacecraft, but bypasses the moon as a primary target or even a necessary intermediate stage.

Instead they propose that Orion be modified to support flights "beyond the moon," most likely to visit near-Earth asteroids (NEA's, as discussed here) as a way of showing that we can move beyond duplicating what we did 40 years ago with Apollo. They claim we could save money by deferring the building of lunar bases and the new lunar lander. Mars would be the explicit ultimate goal, with moon landings to be done in the interim only as needed to prove out landing systems and the like. Deep space missions to NEA's might better prepare us for the long flights needed for Mars, though I would want something a bit more roomy than Orion for any multi-month mission.

Many people think the moon is interesting in its own right, as a possible source of materials and as a large and stable platform in near-Earth space. But there is a certain allure in doing something totally new... boldly going where no man (or woman) has gone before. The Planetary Society's pitch is clearly aimed at the new president, in hopes that he will refocus the Vision on something really new, and in the process get more people interested in the space program (and fund it, too). I'm not sure if we can sneak past the moon or not, but trying for something farther out would certainly result in more robust and flexible systems for long-duration spaceflight (some of which could be tested on the ISS). Whether the public imagination can truly be engaged with long space voyages to small objects depends a lot on how it's done, and on how much involvement the public can have. Maybe NASA can learn some lessons from the Obama campaign in building a base of support through the internet.

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