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NASA abandonment of the moon out of step with international partners, academia

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According to a Friday story in the journal Space News, NASA and various other national space agencies continue to clash over the utility of sending humans to the lunar surface as part of an overall space exploration plan leading to Mars. The NASA policy stems from the 2010 decision by the Obama administration to cancel the Bush era Constellation program that would have returned American astronauts to the moon by 2019. President Obama, in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, was very direct about his personal lack of desire to return to the moon.

“Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz (Aldrin) has been there.”

The Obama policy of bypassing the moon and instead exploring an asteroid has caused a great deal of rancor and criticism, not only from members of Congress, but also outside space experts and even Apollo moon walkers such as the late Neil Armstrong. The Obama policy has made NASA particularly out of step with its international partners, especially the European Space Agency. The clash led to an exchange of words at a recent NASA Community Workshop on the Global Exploration Roadmap, held at the Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

The NASA representative, Roland Martinez, was direct about the lack of interest in the space agency in returning to the moon. The path to Mars involved the asteroid redirect mission planned for the early 2020s. There will be as yet some undefined deep space missions. Then, sometime in the 2030s, astronauts will voyage to Mars.

The NASA position was hotly disputed by others at the conference. Mark Robinson, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University and principal investigator of the main camera on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance argued that the moon is in the critical path for any program to go to Mars. The moon is an ideal place for astronauts to practice surface operations before undertaking the more challenging voyage to the Red Planet.

Bernhard Hufenbach of the European Space Agency’s European Space Research and Technology Centre added his voice to argue for a return to the moon in advance of a Mars expedition. He suggested that without the lunar goal it will be impossible to rally the support among the international partners. He also suggested that the public will just not be engaged in vaguely defined expeditions to asteroids or destinations in deep space.

The clash demonstrates once again that the Obama administration just did not think things through when it decided to abandon the moon. The decision has caused tensions with the international partners and the academic community which sees great value in a return to the moon, not just as a stop on the way to Mars, but for its inherent benefits. This is ironic considering that the president’s 2008 campaign contained the theme of being more attentive to the desires of other countries as well as aligning policy toward science.

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