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© 2005 by Donald F. Robertson.
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This article originally appeared in Astronomy Now
Donald F. Robertson
The timing could not have been worse. While the United States suffered repeated pounding by hurricanes, on 19th September 2005 NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin announced the details of President Bush’s plan to return human explorers to Earth’s moon and go on to Mars.
The plan begins by phasing out the Shuttle. Space Station support will be offloaded to commercial launchers, encouraging a new industry delivering bulk cargo to orbit. The savings allow a giant rocket to be cobbled together out of Shuttle parts, which will launch a lunar lander and transfer stage into orbit. Then, a single Shuttle solid rocket booster will orbit a scaled-up Apollo capsule called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, which docks with the lander. The transfer stage will send both toward Earth’s moon.
Dr. Griffin chose not to use existing commercial rockets, which would have saved money up-front and allowed earlier lunar missions. Instead, NASA will spend some $10 billion on the new heavy rocket to make lunar flights easier, and to prepare for Mars expeditions, before spending a single astronaut to Earth's moon.
Building new rockets may prove a political mistake. Significant budget increases for NASA were improbable even before war and hurricanes. Conversely, latent political support for human spaceflight remains strong in Congress, even after the loss of two Shuttle orbiters and fourteen astronauts. Major cuts remain possible, but a wholesale withdrawal from human spaceflight is unlikely, especially as China and other nations enter the field.
Dr. Griffin’s conservative plan may live within NASA’s current budget and it breaks little new ground at first, yet it still costs an estimated $104 billion over thirteen years. Why not give up on human spaceflight and send robots?
In his seminal history of the Soviet lunar effort, “Challenge to Apollo”, Asif A. Siddiqi attempts to compare the cost and scientific value of the large, carefully-selected samples collected during the first two Apollo landings, with those returned by the Soviet Luna robots of the same era. It is difficult to directly compare the two programs, he argued, but the robot effort was far less scientifically productive and it is not clear it was more cost effective. Likewise, the Mars Exploration Rovers are one of the great achievements of our time. However, no rover will rule out life on Mars, locate and map the widespread distribution of any micro-fossils, or accurately date the fine stratigraphy of volcanic flows and flooding over wide areas. Answering these kinds of detailed questions requires on site geologists.
In this light, Dr. Griffin’s “Apollo redux” makes sense. An initial one week lunar stay will quickly escalate to repeated six month Lewis and Clark style expeditions. Geologists will do detailed traverses, while astronauts practice “living off the land” mining oxygen from lunar soil. The giant rocket, and deep space engines burning methane potentially derived from Mars’ atmosphere, together set the stage for the future.
To truly understand the accessible worlds of our Solar System, scientists on site are essential. If there is a way forward, Dr. Griffin’s back-to-basics, relatively affordable, and results-oriented plan is it.
Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco.
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