Paul Spudis, a planetary geologist who writes frequently on space policy, ruminated on Nov, 5, 2013 on the dichotomy of the Chinese launching a rover to the lunar surface while the United States has essentially stopped lunar exploration.
The Chang’e 3 is landing on a hitherto unexplored part of the moon, the Sinus Iridium. “Scientists have only a vague notion of the composition of these lava flows; a chemical ‘ground truth’ analysis will be obtained, one that will help to more precisely calibrate the remote sensing data for other sites. Any new surface exploration always contains the potential for an unexpected or serendipitous discovery.”
Of course the spectacle of the Chinese continuing to explore the moon while the United States has stopped, thanks to a presidential directive, is puzzling, as it turns out, even to the Chinese. Regardless, there are a few people who think that the United States can “lead” and international return to the moon by simply offering sage advice and not actually doing anything.
“Buzz (Aldrin) wants America to “lead” an international effort back to the Moon. But what does America bring to the table that the Chinese need? We can declare that we are the lunar “authorities” and “experts” all we want to, but the two American robotic spacecraft currently orbiting the Moon (LRO and LADEE, a heritage from the former administration) are the last ones scheduled for flight. Buzz’s former colleague Gene Cernan rightly points out that currently, we have no ‘bargaining chips’ for such cooperation.”
What would constitute such a bargaining chip, which is to say something that would prove to potential international partners that the United States is serious about a return to the moon. NASASpaceFlight.com notes that one potential example, the Morpheus vertical takeoff and landing test vehicle, is going to the Kennedy Space Center for a serious of tests that will lead to untethered flights. Morpheus is testing a “green” rocket engine and a landing and obstacle avoidance system that would allow it land autonomously on the surface of another world.
Like the moon.
Morpheus is derived from another project that was designed to land a 1,100 pound payload on the lunar surface. A bipedal robot similar to Robonaut 2 now being tested on the International Space Station was one example. A rover like the Chang’e 3, factory to extract oxygen from lunar soil, or a water ice prospector are other possibilities.
It seems that the next step for Morpheus, if it passes the free flight tests at KSC, would be to use a new version of it on a lunar landing mission, say to the lunar south-pole. The costs would not be that high. The mission could be launched on a commercial space craft.
If NASA would not take the initiative to go the next step, thus expanding the test regime for Morpheus and incidentally show renewed interest for the moon, perhaps some enterprising senator or congressman (or group of legislators) could take the initiative and make it a new start in the next NASA funding bill.