Published online 6 February 2008 | Nature 451, 612-613 (2008) | doi:10.1038/451612a


The Moon: destination or distraction?

NASA plans for manned spaceflight re-assessed.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle might not go to the Moon.The Crew Exploration Vehicle might not go to the Moon.LOCKHEED MARTIN

A high-level meeting next week will offer scientists a chance to re-examine NASA's commitment to human exploration of the Moon. The 12 February workshop is organized by the Planetary Society, a space-exploration advocacy group based in Pasadena, California. It is timed to come four years after President George W. Bush called for a return to the Moon in his Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), and a week after the last of the budget requests with which he might have furthered that vision (see page 610). As such, it might thus mark the opening of the post-Bush era in space exploration.

Conceived in the wake of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the VSE's goals were to finish the International Space Station (ISS), replace the shuttle, return crews to the Moon, and eventually explore Mars. But the expense of shuttle operations and ISS construction has led to cuts in the VSE's budget, as well as in that for space science. “The Vision for Space Exploration doesn't have enough public support to generate the budget it needs,” says Planetary Society director Louis Friedman. “We have an adequate window to discuss whether the lunar programme has been constructed correctly.”

On the list to attend the two-day, invitation-only meeting at Stanford University in California are 50 prestigious figures including astronauts, former aerospace-industry chief executives, a handful of former NASA associate administrators and, most importantly perhaps, the advisers to two of the presidential candidates.

“We have a window to discuss whether the lunar programme has been constructed correctly.”

Given the budgetary constraints, some of the participants want alternatives to Moon missions. One target would be the near-Earth asteroids, some of which are within the range of the Ares 1 rocket that is under development for the VSE. Because of the asteroids' low gravity, they could be landed on with a slightly modified version of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, being developed as a replacement for the Space Shuttle. Other proposals would take a crew not to natural targets but to artificial ones, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared replacement for the Hubble telescope that will orbit considerably farther from Earth. These missions would offer a chance to practise the long trips required for interplanetary travel without incurring the costs of lunar landings.

Some see a subtext here — a desire to avoid building expensive lunar infrastructure and instead focus on something more exciting. “The real reason Mars advocates like asteroids is because we aren't going to build a base on an asteroid,” says James Muncy, a space-policy consultant and former adviser to the Reagan and current Bush administrations. The Planetary Society has long pushed for Mars missions, and one of the meeting's conveners is Stanford professor G. Scott Hubbard, a former head of the NASA Mars programme. Hubbard says that, although he personally wants to speed up Mars exploration, there is no preconceived result for the workshop. But Mike Griffin, the NASA administrator, says in an e-mail to Nature that some of the workshop organizers had a long-standing rejection of the Moon as a place to explore. “Balanced choices must be made,” Griffin says. “But they cannot be continually remade if there is to be progress.”

A new administration, though, does offer a chance to make new policy — and to appoint new administrators. “This is absolutely the season for these things,” says Muncy. Lon Levin and Lori Garver, who are space-policy consultants and advisers to Democrat presidential-hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, are the sort of attendees who might feed the results of the workshop into new policy. Hubbard says that the exclusion of advisers to major Republican candidates, Senator John McCain (who has been endorsed by Sean O'Keefe, the former NASA administrator who launched the VSE) and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, was not intentional. Rather the Democratic advisers were included incidentally, as the Planetary Society is one of Garver's clients and Levin is a member of its board.


The Stanford workshop group is just one of many fighting for the attention of such people. “Theirs will be one more report added to dozens of other inputs that these transition teams are going to get,” says Alan Ladwig, a former NASA associate administrator who supports the current programme. “Unless one has the private number of a presidential candidate, I can't imagine that it will have all that much of an impact.”

But the Stanford group has a precedent. After Bush issued the skeletal version of the VSE in January 2004, many groups followed up with reports on how best to implement it. In the summer of 2004, Griffin, then at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, and Owen Garriott, a former astronaut, produced their own report on the VSE, commissioned by the Planetary Society. They shopped the report around the White House and Congress, where it was received favourably. By April of 2005, Griffin was NASA administrator and his report was, for the most part, subsequently implemented. “I'm sure that some of [the workshop attendees] would hope to get on one of the transition teams or get some kind of political appointment or return to NASA as a result of their activity,” says Ladwig. 

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