It has been a strange two weeks for space news, and the steady trickle keeps coming! There's been an interesting development, for example, in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to this article shared by Ms. K.F.:
There are several important paragraphs here, but I want to zero in on the following:
Since a space policy speech in 2010 by President Obama, the space agency has been following a loosely defined plan to first send astronauts to visit a fragment of an asteroid near the Moon and then conduct other operations in the vicinity of the Moon before striking off for Mars some time in the 2030s. However a number of independent reports, such as the National Research Council’s Pathways to Exploration, have questioned the viability and sustainability of a direct-to-Mars plan. That panel called for NASA and the White House to reconsider the Moon as an interim destination.
In the new House budget, which provides funding for fiscal year 2017, the committee recognizes there are some useful components of the asteroid mission. These include propulsion research and asteroid deflection, but committee members found that “neither a robotic nor a crewed mission to an asteroid appreciably contribute to the overarching mission to Mars.” The costs of such a mission are also unknown, the committee wrote.
“Toward that end, no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid,” the bill states. “Instead, NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.”
The bill must still be approved by the full Appropriations Committee and House and then squared with Senate legislation, which does not explicitly call for lunar landings and exploration as a precursor to Mars missions. However the proposed law lays down a clear marker for the next president—Republican or Democrat—when the new administration considers space policy.
Turning away from the Moon
Even before President Obama came into office, there was general agreement in the US space community that NASA should establish Mars as the agency’s horizon exploration goal. Under President George W. Bush, however, the space agency’s plans called for returning to the Moon first. This would allow NASA and its astronauts to learn how to live on an airless world without protection from the Sun’s radiation and develop technologies such as lunar ice mining that could be applied to missions deeper into the Solar System, such as Mars.
So what's going on here?
I suspect several things are lurking in the background, and that this is as much a commercial and geo-political, or shall we say, geo-celestial-political turn, as it is about "simple science" and "space exploration." Recall that just a few weeks ago Mr. Obama visited San Carlos di Bariloche in Argentina, a city and region with deep implications, not the least because of China's presence in Argentina, with a space-tracking capability there designed to serve its space ambitions, which China has made no bones about: they intend to reach the Moon, and mine it. But China is not alone here. Other nations have laid out plans for the Moon and its potential mining, and Russia and Japan have added to this their own stated goals of basing a permanent human presence on the Moon(in Russia's case), and Japan, you'll recall, stated it wants to turn the Moon into a gigantic microwave powerplant to solve its energy needs. You'll also recall that China dubbed this plan nothing but an attempt to weaponize the entire Moon and turn it into a microwave "death star."
The plain bottom line here is that these stated and announced intentions by rivals to American space power simply necessitate a turn back to "seleno-centrism," for it will do the USA absolutely no good to explore, or even start bases, on the planet Mars if the communications lifeline between Earth and the Red Planet can be severed by those with bases and commercial interests on the Moon. This is simple "celetial-political" reality, and it would appear that the Obama White House, and the U.S. House, are each in their own ways acknowleging it as such.
In short: you're watching the birth of a new space race, one far different than that of the 1960s between the USSR and the USA, for this time, the commercial and military objectives are much more in the open. We are watching the space-equivalent of the mad scramble of Portugal, Spain, France, and England to dominate the New World.
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