In the next decade, NASA plans on returning to the moon with Exploration Missions 1 and 2, with EM-2 being the first crewed mission past low-Earth orbit since the end of the Apollo program. These EMs will mark a new beginning for NASA and space exploration as a whole, a beginning which should mark the trail to Mars and beyond.
The EM crews will be riding in Orion spacecraft launched into space by NASA’s long-developed heavy lift rocket, the SLS. Presumably, NASA’s human spaceflight heads wish to eventually allow Americans to once again set foot on an extraterrestrial object like Mars. I’m thinking that the best course of action would be to start with the Moon first despite the immense costs of developing a lunar program.
Now before you raise your objections, know that I realize these drawbacks to going Moon-first:
- Every mission to anywhere other than Mars simply takes away time and money from developing an eventual Mars mission.
- Any lunar vehicles would have to be developed independently of Martian vehicles; the gravitational and environmental differences between Mars and the Moon would necessitate this.
- A lunar mission(s) would almost certainly ensure that a private entity like SpaceX reaches Mars first.
These are the biggest drawbacks, I think, and they are each fairly substantial. The costs of NASA’s manned spaceflight program would almost certainly skyrocket. I generally oppose questionable spending, but I really think the benefits of a lunar return can potentially outweigh the costs.
- As with any space exploration mission, the lunar mission would need to fulfill a scientific purpose. I think the best idea is to begin some on-site (on-moon?) testing for a future, permanent, unmanned lunar base. This lunar base could use the water frozen on the moon to produce fuel for future space missions.
- Even if the conditions are different, and extraterrestrial landing is still a landing. The folks at NASA are rusty; this is a new generation. No one has taken part in a manned landing before, so it’d be good to have a practice run before shipping our brave men and women off across the solar system.
- The United States of America could use a pick-me-up. The Apollo program was one of the nation’s greatest sources of pride in history. Now in 2016, we have a presidential candidate whose main line of success comes from proclaiming that the United States is no longer great. NASA needs to prove to the world — and more importantly, to Americans — that America still is and will continue to be the greatest nation on Earth.
It may take awhile, but the next President of the United States needs to request a space exploration agenda from NASA that pushes the envelope. A budget increase couldn’t hurt either; NASA does so much and only takes up a minute fraction of the federal budget (currently less than .5%. Less than half of one percent!).
[Photo credit: Image of the Moon by William Cerny]