Ten more U.S. astronauts followed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's
July 20, 1969, visit to the moon before the Apollo program was
canceled in 1972. No one has been back since.
The most recent effort to return astronauts to the moon ended in
2010 when the Obama White House axed an underfunded program of the
previous administration called Constellation. Instead, NASA was
directed to begin planning for a human expedition to an asteroid.
That initiative, slated for 2025, also includes a robotic precursor
mission to redirect a small asteroid or piece of a larger asteroid
into a high lunar orbit.
Astronauts would then rendezvous with the relocated asteroid and
pick up samples for return to Earth. The missions are intended as
steppingstones for eventual human expeditions to Mars.
This path, however, is fraught with technological cul-de-sacs that
do not directly contribute to radiation protection, landing systems,
habitats and other projects needed to build the road to Mars, a
National Research Council panel concluded in June.
After a three-year study of different options for human space
exploration, the panel said a more viable and sustainable path would
be to return to the moon.
"The moon, and in particular its surface, (has) significant
advantages over other targets as an intermediate step on the road to
the horizon goal of Mars," the council’s Committee on Human
Spaceflight wrote in a report.
"Although some have dismissed the moon as no longer interesting
because humans have visited it before, this is similar to
considering the New World to have been adequately explored after the
first four voyages of Columbus."
NASA considers the moon "the purview of other nations' space
programs," and "not of interest to the U.S. human space exploration
program," the report said.
"This argument is made despite the barely touched scientific record
of the earliest solar system that lies hidden in the lunar crust,
despite its importance as a place to develop the capabilities
required to go to Mars, and despite the fact that the technical
capabilities and operational expertise of Apollo belong to our
grandparent's generation," the report added.
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Under current plans, it will be another 11 years before U.S.
astronauts travel beyond the International Space Station, a
permanently staffed research laboratory that flies about 260 miles
(420 km) above Earth. A mission to Mars is at least a decade or more
beyond that – if it happens at all.
"It is clear to me that we will not be able to build a long-term
research base on Mars if we don't first do it on the moon,"
planetary scientist Chris McKay wrote in a paper entitled "The Case
for a NASA Research Base on the Moon" that was published last year
in the journal New Space.
"New technologies and approaches … and increased international
interest in the moon make the time right to consider pushing for a
base that is 10 times less expensive than previous base designs,"
McKay added in an email.
Development of the Orion space capsule, Space Launch System
heavy-lift rocket and launch pad renovations at the Kennedy Space
Center in Florida currently cost NASA more than $3 billion a year.
Ultimately, the hurdles on the path to Mars are political, not
technical, in nature, the National Research Council report
"Probably the most significant single factor in allowing progress
beyond low Earth orbit is the development of a strong national (and
international) consensus about the pathway to be undertaken and
sustained discipline in not tampering with that plan over many
administrations and Congresses," the panel said.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Rosalind Russell)
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