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Changing NASA's course?

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Even as NASA works to put the finishing touches on the international space station, it's laying the groundwork for the next giant leap. But is that leap heading in the right direction? Some prominent space advocates are calling for NASA to reduce its emphasis on returning to the moon. Other countries, however, have the moon clearly in their sights.

It will be up to the Obama administration to decide what kinds of course changes might be required in America's space vision, and a member of the transition team told me today that "the process is under way."

NASA Watch reported that the lead players in NASA's transition are Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator who was once in the running to become an "AstroMom" in orbit; and Roderic Young, who served as a top NASA spokesman during the Clinton administration. Garver played a big part in drawing up Hillary Clinton's space policy a year ago, and switched over to the Obama campaign after the primary season.

In a follow-up phone call, Young confirmed the NASA Watch report and told me that he and Garver were just beginning their talks with space agency officials. Substantive policy discussions are not on the agenda right now. "It's high on listening, and offering options," he said.

Shrinking the gap
NASA will be offering its own options in a report being prepared for the new administration. During the campaign, Obama as well as GOP candidate John McCain asked the space agency to determine what it would take to narrow what is expected to be a five-year gap between the shuttle fleet's retirement in 2010 and the debut of the shuttle's successor in 2015.

The successor launch system, including the Orion spaceship and its Ares 1 launch vehicle, is currently undergoing design and development under the aegis of NASA's Constellation Program.

NASA officials have indicated that extending shuttle service into 2011 would cost an extra $2 billion. That would cover one or two shuttle flights, probably including a mission to deliver the $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station.

On the other side of the gap, the Orion-Ares system could be ready to fly astronauts to the station by 2014, Constellation Program manager Jeff Hanley told NBC News. That could shrink NASA's spaceflight gap to three years.

After today's shuttle launch, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin confirmed that an early debut may be in the cards for Orion and Ares - perhaps starting with the launch of "an unmanned vehicle all the way up to orbit." But he emphasized that there ain't no such thing as a free launch, and declined to discuss the potential options in detail.

"The data's not in yet, and I do not want to prejudice the conclusions that the teams will come up with," Griffin said. Low-cost launch options such as SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket might help close the gap as well, although those didn't come up for discussion at today's news conference.

Shrinking the gap emerged as a key recommendation in a report on future space policy issued by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The center's top executive, John Podesta, now leads Obama's transition team - and the report could conceivably serve as a preview for changes in the shuttle endgame.

Beyond the shuttle
So far, there have been no indications of a shift in NASA's longer-range space vision - which calls for sending astronauts to the moon by 2020, establishing settlements and then moving on toward Mars. But this week, the California-based Planetary Society outlined a revised vision in its own outer-space roadmap for the new administration.

The roadmap urges NASA to put the moon aside for now, and work with international partners to develop the next generation of spaceships. That strategy would spread out the costs of development, the Planetary Society said.

"Human landings should be deferred until after the costs of the new interplanetary transportation system and space shuttle replacement are largely paid, and after that system has been utilized to conduct the first human missions beyond the moon," the report said.

Those beyond-moon missions might go to one of Mars' moons instead, or a near-Earth object. Although the roadmap doesn't rule out establishing a moon base someday, it clearly shifts the focus of the vision from the moon to the Red Planet.

Moon vs. Mars
The moon-vs.-Mars debate has been percolating for decades, and it's not clear how much of an impact the Planetary Society's report will have on that debate. The latest roadmap is already receiving some raves as well as raspberries galore.

One of the first men to set foot on the moon, Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin, largely endorsed the Planetary Society's plan. "U.S. landings on the moon should be deferred so that they can be part of an international base on the moon preparing for the permanent settlement of Mars," he said in a written statement.

But one of the last men to set foot on the moon, Apollo 17's Harrison Schmitt (who is also a former U.S. senator), scoffed at the roadmap in a letter that was sent to the Planetary Society's leaders (and shared with Space.com columnist Leonard David).

"This strategy would leave deep-space activities, exploration and resources to others, i.e., China, India, maybe Russia, for the indefinite future," Schmitt wrote. "I believe that would be major step in initiating the decline of America's global influence for freedom and the improvement of the human condition."

The emerging space powers - including China and India as well as Japan - have already decided to target the moon, with robotic as well as eventual human missions. All three of those countries (as well as the European Space Agency) have sent probes successfully to the moon in the past five years - and just today, India reported that its Chandrayaan 1 lunar probe put a piggyback lander on the moon's surface.  

If NASA is going to join forces with other countries, as suggested in the roadmap, the global space run's first destination would probably be the same place targeted during the Cold War space race. In fact, NASA has been pursuing international lunar collaborations for a couple of years now.

Unless space agencies around the world are willing to do a quick about-face, the moon will remain the destination for the next giant leap. To paraphrase JFK, the reason for that is not because it is easy, but because it is less hard than blasting off in a completely different direction.

The whole sweep of NASA's exploration effort, from Project Mercury to the Constellation Program, gets a review in two documentaries airing Monday: "One Giant Leap" airs on the Documentary Channel, and "Direct From the Moon" will be on the National Geographic Channel. Check your local listings for availability and times.

This item was last updated at 11:07 p.m. ET.