How Soon to the Moon?

Sending humans back to the moon might divert money from other space science. Is it worth it?

President Bush’s plan to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars doesn’t change much in the near term. The immediate goal is still to replace the space shuttle, a task NASA has been struggling with for years. In the long term, it gives the space agency the clear goal that most observers agree it badly needs. The technology for human and robotic exploration of the Moon and Mars poses serious challenges. But the biggest problem will be sustaining a viable program over the long years it will take for astronauts to reach Mars.

Since President Nixon cancelled the Apollo Program in 1972, NASA’s human spaceflight program has focused on near-term goals-first building the shuttle, then a permanently occupied space station. Both ran far over budget and behind schedule. The station is still incomplete, and as a long-term goal it leaves NASA literally going around in circles.

Last year, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board agreed, saying the lack of long-range goals for human spaceflight was hurting the space program. A National Academy of Sciences workshop came to the same conclusion in a report released January 14, the day of Bush’s announcement. “You need a long-term goal for human spaceflight,” said Lennard Fisk, chair of the academy’s space studies board. Participants agreed the goal should be staged exploration with a long time horizon, not a crash project like Apollo. “Let’s systematically go forth into the solar system,” Fisk said. “If you take that approach, with a lot of interim steps, it’s not a budget-busting thing.” Bush’s proposal “appears to be very consistent with what we were asking for,” Fisk said in a telephone interview.

The plan that Bush outlined Wednesday at NASA headquarters would return the space shuttle to flight with the goal of completing assembly of the International Space Station by 2010. Once that job is done, the shuttle will be retired. That scenario requires spending about $4 billion a year on shuttle operations, plus the extra cost of recovering from the Columbia disaster. NASA’s current shuttle launch manifest includes two return-to-flight test missions, six missions to complete the core of the station, and 14 subsequent missions to deliver crews and equipment to the station. At four missions a year, that will take NASA into 2010.

Bush did not mention a main concern of astronomers-a service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope that had been planned for next year before the Columbia accident. But on Friday afternoon, January 16 [after this story was initially posted], NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe devastated astronomers by cancelling it, leaving Hubble likely to cease operations by 2007. O’Keefe blamed the need to devise special safety procedures for the mission, which cannot reach the International Space Station. 

The plan calls for the United States to narrow its space-station research to focus on the effects of space flight on humans. That reflects concern on the effects of long-duration weightlessness, which O’Keefe said in a separate press conference need to be mitigated. Bush set no deadlines for ending U.S. support for the station, but O’Keefe showed a chart that zeroed station spending in 2017.

To replace the shuttle, Bush wants to build a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), which unlike the shuttle could go beyond low Earth orbit. His goal is  to begin tests of an unmanned version of this craft by 2008, with the first manned mission “no later than 2014.” This maiden voyage would probably be a modest one: delivering astronauts to the space station. That’s roughly the timetable that NASA had set for the Orbital Space Plane, last year’s planned successor to the shuttle.

O’Keefe said the new spacecraft would be an evolvable design that could be fine-tuned to the needs of individual missions. That’s a big step beyond the one-size-fits-all approach of the shuttle and earlier proposed replacements. Flying from the ground to low-Earth orbit, from Earth orbit to the moon, and returning to the ground all have different requirements, says Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It makes sense to have a set of vehicles built around the same core.”

Versions of the CEV would return to the moon. Robots would arrive first, by 2008, to explore the surface and begin preparing for human exploration. Astronauts would follow, with extended missions starting between 2015 and 2020. Bush mentioned the possibility of mining lunar resources and using them to fuel spacecraft that could be launched from the Moon’s low gravity. That capability is probably far off. Recent observations of perpetually shadowed craters near the lunar pole failed to find the water ice suggested by earlier observations, and whole new technologies would have to be developed that today are the realm of science fiction. Nonetheless, the moon is a logical step. “It teaches us operating on another world in a gravity well,” says McDowell, lessons vital to exploring Mars “that we can and should learn on our friendly little airless world three days from home.” Robots would head to Mars first, following the tire tracks of the Pathfinder and Spirit landers. Bush did not set a target date for a manned Mars mission. O’Keefe said the timetable for Martian exploration will depend on the program’s progress in coming years.

Money is of course an issue. Bush stressed his plan would add only about 5 percent to NASA’s $15.4 billion budget in fiscal 2005-a low-ball figure that undoubtedly reflects the constraints imposed by a half-trillion-dollar budget deficit. He plans to budget $12 billion for the program over the next five years, but $11 billion will be shifted from other NASA projects. Bush didn’t identify exactly which program would lose out, but one logical source is NASA’s old project to replace the shuttle the Space Launch Initiative which had been budgeted for about $6 billion over the next five years. Other money presumably will come from human space flight-including the shuttle and the station-which has been receiving about $6 billion a year.

The new ideas have been kicking around within NASA for a long time, and bubbled to the top after the Columbia disaster. Many details remain unclear. Bush won’t submit his fiscal 2005 budget until February 3, and Congress will want to have its say. Yet some directions are clear. Bush didn’t go for the biggest potential money-saver-grounding the shuttle immediately, as some observers had suggested. That isn’t politically viable because it would kill the space station-an international project on which Europe, Japan, Russia and Canada have spent billions. Finishing assembly of the station will complete U.S. obligations. Russian spacecraft, and new vehicles being developed by Europe, Japan, and the United States, could then service the station.

Previous NASA efforts to replace the shuttle have floundered when advanced technologies failed to meet ambitious performance targets. The single stage to orbit “Delta Clipper” is a case in point. The orbital space plane-a vaguely defined spacecraft to be launched on a human-rated version of the Atlas 5 or Delta IV-never got beyond the drawing boards. No specific plans are set for the new spacecraft. “We’ve got to avoid getting fond of a design,” O’Keefe said. The new craft ought to be able to evolve to fit changing needs, starting with unmanned launches and later carrying astronauts-first to the space station and later to the moon.

Bush’s proposal inevitably recalls his father’s 1989 plan to return to the Moon and send astronauts to Mars by 2019. A blue-ribbon panel assembled four detailed scenarios spanning 30 years, but the project died stillborn-victim of a projected $400 billion price tag, the aftermath of the Challenger disaster and Hubble fiasco, and escalating budget deficits.

The younger Bush’s plan clearly echoes the scenarios developed for his father, which called for landing a roving robot on Mars by 2003. Robotics technology has advanced faster than expected, and plays a major role in the new scenario. Human spaceflight, however, has progressed more slowly. This week’s announcement did not prescribe designs or specific timetables. That’s more realistic in a task that involves extensive research. It also avoids embarrassments like the overruns that brought the cost of Reagan’s $8 billion space station close to $100 billion.

Space scientists seem receptive, although with qualifications. The Planetary Society welcomed Bush’s plans for human exploration of Mars, but remains skeptical about revisiting the moon. “How lunar missions would lead to a Mars landing must be closely examined,” said executive director, Louis Friedman.

“It would be a worthwhile investment for the country to go back to the moon with a plan for extended stays and to learn to operate on another world,” McDowell said. But he worries that by casting NASA’s mission as “exploration,” Bush is setting the stage for conflicts with NASA’s science programs. “We need to distinguish between science and exploration… NASA can do both and we can afford to do both.” Astronomers and planetary scientists don’t want to see their projects fighting against human spaceflight.

If we’re going to keep sending people into space, we have to replace the shuttle. NASA has dithered far too long, and desperately needs a long-term sense of direction. The new plan isn’t revolutionary, but it is heading in the right direction. Its fate will likely come down to politics when push comes to shove, long after the November elections.

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