NASA and the space agencies of a variety of countries, including members of the European Union, Canada, Japan, Russia, India, the Ukraine, and South Korea, have rolled out the latest version of a space exploration roadmap.
NASA and its partners have created two road maps, called "Asteroid First" and "Moon First." This represents the continuing argument over which destination astronaut explorers should go to first. Should it be an Earth approaching asteroid, as President Obama insists? Or should it be the moon, as many people in Congress, NASA, and NASA's partner agencies suggest?
In any event, all roads lead to Mars in the current plan. Both visits to an asteroid and to the moon are considered practice runs for what will be needed to go to Mars.
Visiting an asteroid would hone skills for deep space voyages, which would take several months and expose astronauts to the hazards of micro gravity and radiation. Going to an asteroid would test technology that would eventually be used to journey to Mars, sometime in the 2030s or 2040.
Going back to the moon would test surface operations and resource utilization, skills necessary for length stays on Mars. The first lunar expedition would land at the moon's south pole and would stay for a week. Eventually lunar expeditions would stay for 28 days.
Intriguingly the road map incorporates some outside the box ideas put forward by a number of people inside and outside NASA.
The asteroid missions would begin with a space station to be created at one of the Lagrange points between the Earth and moon. This seems similar to the Nautilus-X concept developed by a number of NASA engineers. However, as one version of the Nautilus-X would serve as a way station between the Earth and moon, while another as an interplanetary spaceship, the space station envisioned in the roadmap would serve as a technology development test bed for long, deep space voyages.
The lunar missions would be preceded by a number of robotic missions to the moon. This would seem similar to a plan put forward the Dr. Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute and Tony Lavoie of NASA's Marshal Spaceflight Center. It is uncertain whether the NASA plan will be quite as extensive as the Spudis/Lavoie plan, which would robots prospecting and mining lunar resources and setting up habitats and other infrastructure for the first astronaut explorers to use.
The roadmap is being rolled out against a backdrop of mounting criticism about the Obama approach to space exploration, most recently articulated before a congressional committee by Apollo moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan. The roadmap seems to reflect a lack of focus and ambivalence of how to proceed, divided as it is between two approaches. Also the Mars centric focus, as opposed to going to the moon or an asteroid as goals in and of themselves, would seem to be open for examination. In any event, it may take another change in administrations and yet another reexamination of space exploration before a clear path to the solar system is created.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.