The Next Forty Years
NASA, despite its ongoing budget problems and the planned withdrawal from service of the shuttle in 2010, is still the leading space agency. That the Russians have retained a robust system for achieving Low Earth Orbit is a tribute to its designers - the Soyuz family of spacecraft has its roots in the time of Apollo. And although there are plans to send a robot spacecraft to Phobos, Russia hasn't launched any interplanetary missions since the failed Mars 96 mission. There are Japanese, Chinese and Indian space agencies, not to mention the Europeans, too. Maybe one or more of these will pull off something astounding. And both the Japanese and Indian space agencies have made noises about manned missions to the Moon, but so far these are still in the golden vapourware stage. Only NASA has proven technology for sending human beings beyond Earth orbit, and landing them on the Moon. And NASA is at present the only serious player when it comes to mounting a manned interplanetary mission.
Right now, NASA is going through what can most kindly be characterised as a period of consolidation. In Charles Bolden, a retired general and former astronaut, it has a new leader who is widely considered to be a champion of human spaceflight. But President Obama has ordered a wide-ranging review of NASA's activities, and there are already deep cuts in the ubmanned space exploration programme. This, and severe cost-overrun problems with the Mars Science Laboratory, the next generation Mars Rover equipped with tools to search for signs of past and present life, and scheduled to be launched in 2011 has already led to the cancellation of the 2020 Europa Jupiter mission. The MSL and other unmanned robot explorers are heavier and far more complicated than their predecessors because they need to mimic the capabilities of human explorers. So as far as Mars is concerned, why not collapse the two programmes into one, and send humans to Mars by 2030?
Right now, NASA has no firm plans to do that, only good intentions. Instead, it's focusing on a return to the Moon, using the Orion/Ares I/Ares V transportation system - the Constellation programme. This is a beefy launch system that can boost a large payload into low Earth orbit, or send a four-person crew to the Moon, in the Orion crew exploration vehicle. In other words, it's a programme that will give NASA the capabilities it had forty years ago. Sure, Orion is larger and more robust than Apollo, but apart from an extended mission profile and a larger crew it won't do anything that Apollo couldn't do. I don't think that means it should be cancelled in favour of a vigorous push for a manned Mars mission. Too much has been invested in the Constellation programme; we need a large booster to shift materials into Earth orbit; it's important to go back to the Moon if only to prove to ourselves that we can. But I don't think that the second stage of the programme, establishing a permanent presence on the Moon, is in any way necessary. If you want to learn how to live on Mars, go to Mars. Instead, Orion could be used as a stepping stone for deep space missions to Near Earth Objects - asteroids that at some point in their orbit intersect Earth's. This would pave the way for a manned mission to establish a forward base on Phobos (check out Geoffrey A. Landis's Footsteps to Mars for more details), a stopping-off point and a supply base for a mission to the surface of the red planet.
Impossibly ambitious? Foolishly optimistic? Maybe. A waste of money better spent on problems right here on Earth? These guys don't think so. And hey, there are always going to be problems here on Earth, and most of the money will stay right here, employing an army of specialists and engineers, stimulating new technologies. There's been a large amount of looking back, these past weeks, and regret for what might have been, if the Apollo programme hadn't been abandoned. Let's not make the same mistake again.