Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Fly me to the Moon

» NASA Unveils Strategy for Return to the Moon
NASA has decided to pursue a base on the Moon. The space agency rolled out today a strategy and rationale for robotic and human exploration of the Moon — determining that a lunar outpost is the best approach to achieve a sustained, human presence on the Moon.

The base would be built in incremental steps, starting with four-person crews making several seven-day visits. The first mission would begin by 2020, with the base growing over time, beefed up with more power, mobility rovers and living quarters.

The Moon base would eventually support 180-day lunar stays, a stretch of time seen as the best avenue to establish a permanent presence there, as well as prepare for future human exploration of Mars.

I'm actually slightly conflicted about the idea of a Moon base being the "big goal" for NASA, and I'm certainly concerned about how they plan to pursue it.

Here's the thing. In 1961, President Kennedy sparked the Apollo project. Starting with essentially no initial practical experience, humans were stepping foot on lunar soil eight years later. We went back six more times, and there were plans for a Moon base by 1975 and human missions to Mars in the early 1980s. Then President Nixon scrubbed the program and the ultimate result was NASA's primary mission consisting of sending up an overpriced reusable shuttle to low orbit for two three decades.

Now I for one am supportive of the spirit of President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration." But just making a speech isn't going to cut it. Why is it that the first time, starting from scratch, it only took eight years to go to the Moon, but it will now take 15 years to go back using what amounts to upgraded versions of the same hardware? And when was the last time you saw a multi-decade, non-crucial government program not get cancelled or have its budget slashed?

NASA's Moon plan is just that: a plan. It's not a mission. It's not a challenge. It's something that can be sent through fifteen more congressional sessions and a couple more presidential administrations to get hacked and neutered. If any part of this effort actually becomes reality (anyone remember Bush I's plan to go back to the Moon and Mars from 1989?) I can almost guarantee it will be a fraction of the plan's potential.

The International Space Station went through dozens of iterations, but even its final configuration when construction began was to be a fairly well-equipped space laboratory with a crew of seven or more. Now the only thing keeping construction moving forward at all is the fact that enough hardware is already in orbit that it has to be finished, its crew reduced to three, more than a decade late and billions of dollars over budget. This is the future that awaits the Moon base.

What made Kennedy's vision distinct from Bush's is that Kennedy's was audacious. It was almost absurd to think that we could build up the technology to send a human to the Moon in less than a decade. But the challenge was put in place and we did it. There was never a chance to shut down the program, because once it started moving the momentum was there. NASA's proposed Moon base is a project operating on what amounts to a shoestring budget with deadlines so far ahead that half the engineers that will meet them are still in high school.

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