NASA May, (or May Not) Be Considering a Lunar Return After All

April 15th, 2015 will mark the fifth anniversary of one of the most significant, and controversial policy changes in the history of the U.S. space program, the decision to cancel Project Constellation and NASA’s planned return to the Moon. Now, according to a story by veteran reporter Eric Berger in the Houston Chronicle, with less than two years remaining in the Obama presidency, America’s space agency appears to be laying a foundation for a return to the Moon.

NASA, in a response to questions posed by Marcia Smith at Spacepolicyonline officially disputes the story as not offering any new information, saying in part:

“The Evolvable Mars Campaign, which envisions using the lunar vicinity to support a human mission to the Red Planet, is in line with and designed to advance the president’s ambitious space exploration plan. We’re making great progress on this journey to Mars. A key element of our plan to get to the Red Planet is employing a stepping stone approach, including living, working and learning in cis-lunar space.”

The response, while politically necessary given the President’s direct dismissal of a lunar return during his KSC address, is more than a little open ended, and unintentionally begs a question which should be comical, but isn’t.

If NASA can assert that the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which now consists of bringing a rock picked off an asteroid to lunar orbit is what the President meant when he proposed sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history, then why isn’t it equally plausible to redefine “lunar vicinity” to mean about two meters above the surface, say, at the base of lunar lander.

The debate between a lunar return versus a straight to Mars approach for the same policy goal, a Mars landing, is an old one, and with a looming change in leadership it is almost certain to come back in a big way. What may have changed in the five years since President Obama threw a stone into the argument, literally, is that the landscape of private sector involvement has changed significantly.

Much of it is due to carefully designed and well administered government policy. In the five years since Constellation was canceled, Commercial resupply of ISS, a proposal included in the Bush Administration’s Vision for Space Exploration, but brought to life under the Obama Administration, has been a striking success. In formulating its plans for Cis-Lunar space, regardless of how close to surface that may ultimately be, NASA is increasingly looking towards the private sector for assistance, a trend which is evident both in official statements, as well as in the Chronicle article.

Even in the unlikely event that space policy becomes a meaningful part of the debate in an election cycle which is already getting underway, it will almost certainly be at least two years before a new Administration, and a new NASA Administrator, begin to implement any major changes. It is a timeframe which could see private lunar exploration, at least at the robotic level, finally takeoff.

With both Astrobotic and Moon Express now making significant progress towards 2016 launch dates in their pursuit of the Google Lunar X-Prize, any major change in policy for NASA’s “Evolvable Mars Campaign ” may have the benefit of concrete example that the Moon is a noteworthy destination. The real question is where or not it builds, or detracts, from the case for the Moon as a necessary destination on the way to Mars.


Posted in: Mars, Moon, NASA

About the Author:

1 Comment on "NASA May, (or May Not) Be Considering a Lunar Return After All"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Some basic problems of the straight to Mars concept is that:

    1. It probably wont take place until the 2030s. So what does NASA do in the meantime– if anything?

    2. There won’t be any funding for any Mars missions until the $3 billion a year ISS program finally ends

    3. NASA has yet to appropriately address a few major problems in getting humans safely too Mars and back:

    protecting astronauts from heavy nuclei exposure over several years plus protecting astronauts from high levels cosmic radiation in general while also protecting astronauts from major solar events.

    Protecting astronauts from the deleterious effects of long term exposure to microgravity has also not been addressed.

Post a Comment