NASA officials, attending the European Lunar Symposium that was held at the Natural History Museum in London recently, hinted that the moon could be used as a practice run for the eventual expedition to Mars in the 2030s, according to a Wednesday story in Phys.org, What the nature of this practice run is not clear. By presidential directive, the moon is off limits to NASA.
Current plans call for NASA to capture a tiny asteroid, place it in lunar orbit, and then visit it with astronauts using the Orion spacecraft launched by the heavy lift Space Launch System. But this mission would have little practical application to a Mars mission. It would not involve landing on the moon nor would it be a long duration flight. Either type of mission would be great practice for a Mars expedition as it would involve both.
NASA's chief scientist Dr Ellen Stofan and deputy chief technologist Jim Adam reiterated the line that the space agency does not intend to conduct lunar surface operations. However they did admit that doing so would be invaluable for both science and exploration as well as resource extraction. NASA means to play a supporting role for other entities, presumably other national space agencies and private organizations with their eye on the moon.
Partly because the moon is such a useful venue to practice Mars operations, President Obama’s decision to forego a lunar return has encountered serious criticism, from international partners, Congress, and outside space experts. Because of deposits of water ice, which could be refined into rocket fuel, the moon would also serve as a refueling stop for deep space missions to places like Mars. The moon is three days away, as opposed to many months to Mars. Finally the moon has some intrinsic scientific and commercial value that NASA has been ordered to forego because of the president’s directive.