When the ongoing celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's and Buzz Aldrin's historic strolls on the moon are finally over, NASA will be facing one of its biggest challenges yet: determining the future of U.S. manned spaceflight. Should the United States return to the moon after a decades' long absence or press ahead for more distant destinations?
Today, NASA is shooting for a manned return to the moon by 2020 to establish a lunar base where astronauts could live for up to six months. Former President George W. Bush introduced the new moon program in the wake of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident.
The grand plan was conceived in the aftermath of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident and NASA has already spent almost $6.9 billion on the effort. Under the plan, the space shuttle will be retired at the end of next year and for the next five years -- as NASA builds new rockets and capsules capable of reaching the moon -- NASA plans to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz to complete missions to the ISS (International Space Station).
President Obama's NASA budget also shuts down the space shuttle program in late 2010, but fully funds the eight remaining flights to completely build out the International Space Station. Budget documents released May 7 even allow for a ninth mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station if the first eight can be "safely and affordably completed in calendar year 2010."
The current plan, though, is under scrutiny as Obama in May ordered a thorough review of NASA's goals and objectives. A blue-ribbon panel of experts is conducting the review, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine. The panel's completed review is expected in August.
"I am a real believer in the value of this nation's human spaceflight activities and will do everything I can to provide the information needed to help the country maintain the spectacular arc of progress NASA has fueled for five decades," Augustine said in a statement when he accepted the position.
Count former Aldrin among those who think NASA is off target with its current plans to reach the moon by 2020. Aldrin, the second human to walk on the moon's surface during the historic 1969 Apollo 11 mission, calls the new race to the moon a "glorified rehash of what we did 40 years ago."
Instead of targeting the moon, Aldrin outlines an ambitious manned space flight plan for NASA that uses the moon for little more than a staging area for a 2025 manned landing on the Martian moon Phobus. What exploration takes place on the moon, Aldrin urges, should be jobbed out to an international consortium.
Writing in the August edition of Popular Mechanics, Aldrin said, "As I approach my 80th birthday, I'm in no mood to keep my mouth shut any longer when I see NASA heading down the wrong road and that's exactly what I see today." Aldrin further writes of NASA's lunar plans, "The agency's current Vision for Space Exploration will waste decades and hundreds of billion dollars...Instead of a stepping stone to Mars, NASA's current lunar plan is a detour."
Aldrin emphatically disagrees with NASA on scuttling the shuttle.
"NASA's looming short-term dilemma is the five-year gap between the shuttle's scheduled retirement next year and the debut of the Ares I rocket and the Orion spacecraft in 2015," Aldrin wrote. "During that hiatus, we'll be writing checks to the Russians to let our astronauts hitch rides on Soyuz rockets to the ISS, in which we've invested $100 billion. I find that simply unacceptable."
Instead, Aldrin argues, NASA should stretch out the remaining shuttle flights to 2015 while stepping up subsidies to commercial space flight companies such as SpaceX to shuttle astronauts and cargo to the ISS. As for the moon itself, Aldrin recommends an international consortium to test the commercial possibilties on the moon.
As Aldrin puts it, NASA should "scrap our go-it-alone lunar program and let international partners -- China, Europe, Russia, India, Japan -- do the lion's share of the planning, technical development and funding." Under Aldrin's plan, NASA would participate in the international lunar program by providing technological leadership.
"By renouncing our goal of being the first to the moon (again), we would call off Space Race II with the Chinese and encourage them to channel their ambitious lunar efforts into the consortium," Aldrin wrote. "We should also invite China to join the space station partnership. Its Shenzhou spacecraft would help transport cargo and U.S. astronauts to the station."
NASA, meanwhile, would spend its efforts on developing new spacecraft capable of duration flights to deep points in space and, in particular, Mars, using comets, asteroids and Phobos as stepping stones. Aldrin proposes that by 2018 NASA could mount a one-year flight to reach the comet 46P/Wirtanen. That would be followed by a flight in 2019 or 2020 to the asteroid 2001 GP2.