NASA's current plan for manned space exploration focuses on establishing a base on the moon, as a vital steppingstone for a visit to Mars. The initiative has been trumpeted by the Bush administration, which wants the first mission to launch by 2020. But trouble is brewing as a growing group of former mission managers, planetary scientists and astronauts argues against any manned moon mission at all. One alternative, they say: Send astronauts to an asteroid as a better preparation for a Martian landing.
The dissenters gathered at a meeting of the Planetary Society at Stanford University. "We want to get a positive recommendation to the new administration," says Planetary Society executive director Louis D. Friedman. He supports an eventual mission to Mars, but argues that the current moon scheme was selected with inadequate debate after a speech by President Bush in January 2004. "If you said humans' and Mars' [to NASA officials] in the same sentence, you would receive a figurative slap on the face, and then four months later [the moon-to-Mars plan] was the main point on a viewgraph at the highest levels."
A recent article in Aviation Week reporting on the views of the meeting organizers drew a sharp reply from NASA administrator Michael Griffin. Griffin issued a letter defending the agency's Constellation lunar base program. "The conference organizers have assigned sole responsibility for our new civil space exploration strategy to President Bush, ignoring the hugely bipartisan -- actually nonpartisan -- support it has received in Congress," Griffin wrote. "No such far-reaching proposal should be adopted without debate. That debate was had, in 2003, '04 and '05, and it was fulsome. From it came a unifying plan for civil space, and the best legislative guidance NASA has ever had."
When asked in an interview with Popular Mechanics last year whether he thought the next administration might make manned missions a lower priority, Griffin insisted that he couldn't "imagine any U.S. president or any U.S. Congress deciding to take the United States out of the business of human space flight."
The lunar program, which was largely meant to reinvigorate NASA and renew public enthusiasm for space exploration, has suffered from a spate of bad press. Last week, the Associated Press reported that NASA's Ares I rocket, the replacement for the space shuttle, could literally shake the lunar hardware it carries to pieces during launch. Some presidential candidates have weighed in, criticizing NASA's current plan.
NASA does have vocal supporters, however. Robert Walker, a former congressman and a member of the Presidential Commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy, points out that a Chinese moon program has already begun, with the launch of a probe in 2007. Both India and Japan have also announced their intentions to launch manned lunar missions, to great fanfare.
"Having a U.S. presence on the moon at least gives us the chance to keep an eye on the standard of conduct," Walker says. "And that's pretty damned important." In military terms, the moon can be seen as the ultimate high ground. A nation could set up hard-to-defeat microwave or laser weapons platforms aimed at in-orbit satellites or, in the best sci-fi tradition, to launch large rocks at the Earth with "mass drivers." (These were the weapon of choice for Robert Heinlein's revolutionary protagonists in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.)