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Next giant leap reconsidered

Concept art shows what NASA's next-generation Altair lunar lander may look like.

At the same time that NASA is celebrating its biggest triumph - Apollo 11's first human landing on the moon, 40 years ago - the space agency is facing its biggest wave of uncertainty since the Apollo program ended.

The space shuttle era is winding down to its scheduled end next year, and the successor to the shuttle is facing a hail of questions over cost and safety. Five years after the Bush administration set a course back to the moon, the Obama administration hasn't yet decided whether it will stick to that course. NASA is just now getting a new leader after six months in limbo, and an independent panel is in the midst of assessing the options for the nation's future in space: Return to the moon? Target Mars or one of its moons instead? Land on an asteroid?

"I would say they're all in the mix," the panel's chairman, retired aerospace executive Norm Augustine, told reporters today, "and I wouldn't want to make a forecast one way or another."

Ever since astronauts went to the moon, NASA has never had the money to match its aspirations, he admitted. "That puts NASA in a terrible position," he said.

From decade to decade, presidents, lawmakers and members of the public voice strong support for space exploration. Just today, Gallup released a poll indicating that a gradually increasing number of Americans believe the space program has brought enough benefits to justify its costs. But does that translate into the political will to support a space initiative anywhere nearly as dramatic as Apollo, particularly when it's not clear what the initiative will turn out to be?

Augustine said it all "depends on how the question is asked sometimes."

To some people, the juxtaposition of glory on the moon and uncertainty on Earth may seem ironic - but not to John Logsdon, a space policy analyst and historian at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum who also serves on the NASA Advisory Council.

"There was actually something similar that went on after Kennedy announced we were going to the moon," Logsdon recalled. "It took NASA nine months and lots of alternative designs to settle on what became the Saturn V."

The difference this time is that uncertainties surround not only the rockets being designed to get to the moon, but the White House commitment to the vision and the rationale for going there in the first place (OK, the second place).

Forty years ago, the main reason behind the space race was to keep the moon safe for democracy. "Only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new, terrifying theater of war," President John Kennedy declared in 1962.

Today, military pre-eminence is still a key motivator for spaceflight - but primarily in Earth orbit, not on the moon. Various other reasons have been floated for lunar journeys, ranging from a reignited competition for international prestige to new opportunities for 21st-century science to future fusion fuel. But there are arguments for targeting other destinations as well, as well as for saving all that money and just sending robots out instead.

Over the next month and a half, it will be up to Augustine and his colleagues on the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee to sort all this out. By the end of August, the committee is to submit a list of options to NASA and the White House. The Obama administration will then have to move "rather quickly" to craft its own space vision in time to incorporate into its next budget request, Augustine told me.

Here's a quick rundown of the options that are "in the mix" for Augustine's panel, NASA and the White House:

Low Earth orbit
The first priority is to figure out how to continue supplying the space station after 2010, when the shuttle fleet is due for retirement. NASA is slowly working its way toward the first test flight of a prototype for the Ares I rocket that could fill that role when the shuttles are gone - but even under the best-case scenario, that rocket won't be ready for prime time until 2015 or so. Some say the delays and technical issues bedeveling Ares I are so serious that the project should be abandoned.

Logsdon said the debate goes back to 2005, when the Ares design was chosen from scores of proposed alternatives. "What we have been seeing since then are the 'losers' in that study complaining about the fact that their alternative was better than the one that was chosen," he said. "What's different is that there's enough uncertainty about Ares I to make their complaints credible."

Among the alternatives are the "sidemount shuttle" design that NASA itself is looking at as a Plan B; expendable rockets such as the Delta and Atlas, which would have to be certified as safe to carry humans; the DIRECT project championed by maverick engineers inside NASA; and low-cost, next-generation rockets such as the SpaceX Falcon 9 or the Orbital Taurus 2, which are in line for billions in NASA contracts but have fallen behind their development schedules.

Augustine said today that it's too early to count Ares out. "As far as our committee is concerned, it would be completely wrong to say that Ares is dead in the water," he said, adding that "we're looking at a whole bunch of possibilities."

Meanwhile, NASA is hedging its bets by making deals for Russian Soyuz and Progress flights to the station, but many in industry (and in Congress) aren't happy with letting America slide into a spaceflight gap that could last for five years or more. So yet another alternative would be to keep the shuttles in operation, at least for a while beyond 2010.

The bigger question focuses on what we want to do in low Earth orbit. This week some folks raised a huge fuss over NASA's stated plans for deorbiting the space station in 2016. Those plans were drawn up mostly to satisfy the requirements for space station operation, and it's likely that the space station's life will be extended as time goes on. It's also likely the ISS won't be the only game in town. Russia is already talking about building the next space station, and Bigelow Aerospace is working on private-sector stations.

Eventually, low Earth orbit could become a tourist destination, or a way station (and perhaps a fuel depot) for longer space journeys. Can the international space station serve those functions? Probably not. 

Back to the moon
The shuttle system has nowhere near the firepower required to get out of Earth orbit, so if NASA is going to target the moon (or other deep-space destinations), a big new rocket will be required in any case. Like the Ares I, the Ares V design that NASA has selected is based on adaptations of Saturn-era and shuttle technology. Another question is whether NASA's current long-range plan to build a settlement on the moon will still be deemed affordable, given the economic climate we're facing. There are some hints that a "lunar lite" concept, stressing Apollo-style sorties rather than Antarctic-style settlements, will be among the options under consideration. 

On to Mars (or its moons)
The most popular "minority report" on space exploration, endorsed by none other than Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, is to spend as little effort as possible on the moon and go directly to Mars. An even more sophisticated variant of this plan calls for creating a manned base first on one of Mars' asteroid-like moons, Phobos or Deimos, from which observations could be made and landers could be sent. The Russian-led mission to Phobos, called Phobos-Grunt, represents one small step in this direction. But manned Mars missions would be so complicated and costly that it no one nation could do it alone, and taking that giant of a leap would take far longer than returning to the moon. Aldrin, for example, has suggested a target date of 2031 for a manned Mars base.

Target an asteroid
Aldrin has suggested starting out with a simpler step: sending a manned mission to a near-Earth asteroid - for example, the asteroid Apophis, which may have a very small chance of hitting our planet someday. NASA experts have said that the Project Constellation system being developed for moon trips could be used as well to visit asteroids. Space rocks could provide scientific insight into the origins of the solar system, and some have argued they could provide valuable resources for life in outer space as well. But the biggest thing we need to find out about asteroids is how to keep them from killing us. If it does turn out that a big enough space rock is heading our way in, say, 30 years or so, that might well raise asteroid visits to the top of NASA's priority list.

Build a space base
Yet another option would be to build "flexible" space infrastructure in a place that could take travelers to any of these destinations - say, at one of Earth's gravitational balance points, also known as Lagrangian points. One of these points, L2, is already becoming a popular parking lot for costly space probes, and it's not hard to foresee a time when such stable regions of space could become settled neighborhoods. Before Aldrin's most recent focus on Mars, he favored building a "floating launching pad" for manned and unmanned missions at L1, a balance point between Earth and the moon.

Status quo
... Or we could just go with the status quo, which is actually none of the above. This would entail continuing with the uncertainty surrounding human spaceflight, and perhaps increasing the payoff from unmanned probes such as NASA's Mars rovers and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Augustine said the range of opinions being expressed about space policy is just as wide as it was when he presided over an earlier assessment of America's space goals, back in 1990.

"Then, as now, there are some extremely strong, almost passionately held views," he said. "We'll get one letter right after the other from prominent, qualified people - one which, for example, will say we need to start populating Mars immediately because there's a chance we're going to destroy our Earth. The next one will say we've got major problems of an economic nature in this country, and we shouldn't have a space program at all."

The latter view might suit critics of manned exploration such as University of Maryland physicist Robert Park. "The costs and risks are just too high," he was quoted as saying in USA Today's survey of future spaceflight. But it's just the kind of situation that Logsdon hopes Augustine's report will head off.

"The end point of this, I hope, is that after this process is done, we have a plan that is agreed to and can be stable for a period of time long enough so we can go on and execute it," Logsdon told me. "If we keep changing our mind every two or three years, we'll get nowhere."

More about the Apollo 11 anniversary:

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