The Internet’s space blogs and forums were almost aflame yesterday, in the aftermath of a story run by New Scientist that spread across the net faster than any strain of flu virus. The magazine’s website reported comments made by NASA’s acting Administrator, Chris Scolese, to an important Committee of Washington politicians – “lawmakers” is the popular term, I guess. When asked about NASA’s grand plans to Return To The Moon, Scolese is reported to have said:
“We were looking at an outpost on the moon, as the basis for that  estimate and that one is being revisited,” he said. “It will probably be less than an outpost on the moon, but where it fits between sorties, single trips, to the moon to various parts and an outpost is really going to be dependent on the studies that we’re going to be doing.”
Hang on a minute..! Wasn’t NASA planning to construct an ambitious manned base on the sun-drenched edge of the south pole’s Shackleton crater? Wasn’t NASA going to go back to the Moon “to stay”?
It doesn’t sound like it anymore, not when the guy (currently) in charge says this…
“It will probably be less than an outpost on the moon…”
Hmmm. What exactly is “less” than an outpost? A single inflatable hab? A two man tent you put up when you get there and pack away when you leave? A caravan?
So, is this a sign that NASA is abandoning the Moon, as many are suggesting? Or is it just a sign that NASA is reassessing its plans in the light of the new financial climate?
My personal take on this – and it is just a personal take – is that NASA might not be “abandoning” the Moon altogether, but it’s certainly backing away from it in a big way. Chris Scolese’s comments are, frankly, spin. There’s no way NASA is going to build a large, manned structure on the Moon now; the best we can probably hope for from “The Return to The Moon” is a couple of small pressurised habs bolted together in one place – maybe the rim of Shackleton, still - where experiments are left to run automatically, inbetween occasional visits from small astronaut crews sent there to bring the milk in and collect the post. Other expeditions might be to places of scientific interest, deep craters like Copernicus, etc, but as for NASA planning on taking the first steps towards settling the Moon? Forget it.
So what is behind this “realignment”? Is it a response to the inevitable tightening of NASA’s budget? These are tough times financially, and surely NASA won’t be exempt from cost-cutting. Could it be another sign of NASA’s lack of purpose and direction? One more piece of proof that the space agency is, as many think, adrift at the moment, lacking a clear vision and direction?
Is it because NASA still, after all these months, has no real leader? President Obama managed to find the perfect dog for the White House, but he still hasn’t found a new Adminiatrator for NASA, which does rather suggest that the exploration of space – whatever Obama says in his grand, flourishing speeches – isn’t a very high priority for this Administration.
Or maybe NASA has finally cottoned on to the fact that there is simply no real public support for their Moon plans, and has realised that their attempts to sell the Return to The Moon to the public (and “public” is another word for “taxpayers”, the people who would actually be paying for the mission) have failed utterly and miserably..?
I mean, let’s be honest here, there’s no real interest in NASA’s Moon program outside of pro-space circles, is there? Time and time again I find – when giving an Outreach talk in a village hall, community centre or school – that the very real feeling “out there” in the real world, the world that exists beyond the forums, blogs and Twitter pages of space enthusiasts like myself, and you, dear reader, is “Why repeat Apollo? We’ve already done that…” People Really Just Don’t Care – and they don’t care because NASA simply hasn’t convinced them that it’s worth going to the Moon. Again.
NASA sees the Return to The Moon as a scientific and engineering Mt Everest to scale and conquer. What the vast majority of the public sees, I think, is the beautiful and impressive space shuttle stack being replaced by an ungly pencil of a rocket with a slightly bigger version of the old Apollo capsule stuck on the top of it. They see the replacement of the shuttle orbiter by a capsule – as I do, I have always said – as a step backwards (I know, I know, sound engineering and safety reasons, higher tech… I know all that… but it’s just so… so… bland…!). That capsule will go up and dock with a rehashed lunar module which will then land on the Moon. So far, so Apollo.
Then what? Well, instead of getting out there and exploring exciting, exotic places the plan is… was… to build an ugly mini-base that looks like something a 7yr old would build out of Mecanno, and then learn “how to live and work” in it.
You know what the public’s reaction to that mission is? “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..”
Why? Because NASA has totally failed to ignite public passion for a modern manned Moon program. Oh, it’s tried, but all the Powerpoints, PDFs, Quicktimes and video clips, with their Battlestar Galactica soundtracks and shaky camera moves, haven’t worked. A few times I thought they almost got there; there’s one truly stunning movie that shows an astronaut joggling across the Moon’s surface in a rover, golden visor glinting in the sunlight… he gets off, connects two ends of a power cable together… huge flash of light… spaceships leaping into the sky… pan out to see Moon base below… hang on, I’ll see if I can find it on YouTube, give me a minute… Ah, here it is…
Now THAT’s exciting! That’s inspiring! But it still doesn’t make a case for WHY we should spend a huge amount of money on going back to the Moon, does it?
NASA has given reasons, of course, but none of them really connect with the public. (“To boldly… mine Helium 3″? Yawn….. Fail… ). If NASA told the public that the Moon is worth going to because it’s a geological wonderland of towering mountains, deep valleys and gigantic craters, and exploring those places would help us understand Earth better – and grab us some slap-across-the-face stunning pictures too - then I am sure they’d get a lot more support, I really do. But no. The exploration of the Moon seems cold instead of cool.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just another “Bash NASA” piece. As anyone who reads this blog regularly (thank you!) knows, I’m one of NASA’s hugest and most faithful fans, and will stick my head above the trench to support them every chance I get, but the fact is they have done a pathetic job at selling the Return to The Moon to the taxpayers who would be asked to fund it, and even now, with hardware taking shape, basically very few people who aren’t “into” space like us give a monkey’s about the Moon program. It hasn’t inspired them, it hasn’t excited them, it hasn’t moved them.
What would? Well, no-one will be amazed at me saying this, I know, but a manned Mars program would inspire people, I think. It would give NASA a new direction, new focus, a genuine reason for being. But even a rabid Mars ran like myself accepts that there are huge problems with steering NASA away from the Moon and towards Mars.
Firstly, the cost. It would be enormous, I know. It would probably have to be part of a joint international effort, involving NASA, Europe and Japan, maybe even India and China too. With that in mind, would NASA’s political masters be willing to sign up for something like that? Something wouldn’t happen for another generation? Probably not. In fact, almost certainly not. If NASA began – seriously began – planning a manned mission to Mars today, it wouldn’t be this President but the fourth or maybe even fifth President way on down the line that would bask in the spotlight when the first footsteps were taken on the Red Planet. So, for those reasons, and many more, a manned mission to Mars is at least a generation away, possibly two.
I don’t know if this story about the scaling down of NASA’s Moon plans is true or not, but the fact that it is out there at all, that the space media is free to speculate about it shows a) how rudderless NASA is without an Administrator, and b) what a lack of real solid information there is on this subject. Also, the fact that Chris Scolese signalled, even subtly, that such a shift in policy is even possible is proof that the manned exploration side of NASA is in serious, serious trouble.
So, at the end of all this speculation, are we any nearer to learning if NASA is abandoning the Moon? No, we’re not, to be honest. But I don’t think NASA can “abandon” the Moon as such, because it’s a really useful place on Earth’s doorstep for testing stuff, and doing some science too… yet NASA seems to be shuffling uncomfortably away from it.
If that’s true, hands will be rubbing with glee in other parts of the world, because if NASA doesn’t want the Moon, others do, they’ve made that very clear. When LRO goes into lunar orbit, it might as well drop a white flag onto the surface with “Here you go, it’s all yours…” written on it in Chinese.
Astronauts will go back to the Moon one day, I’ve no doubt about that. The only question is, will they be US astronauts, or space travellers from other countries? Even before this latest story I was really starting to believe that China will beat the US to the Moon, just as a way of proving their national capabilities and to claim bragging rights, but I’m now more convinced than ever that when US astronauts set foot on the Moon they’d better be good neighbours and take a casserole or a pot roast with them, because they’ll be greeted by men and women from another country…
Actually I don’t suppose it matters which country is the next one to place its flag in the Moon’s dirt, as long as someone does. For Makind, and not just the US, to abandon the Moon would be insane. It’s there, so we should use it – but properly, not just for the sake of it.
So what SHOULD NASA be doing? How does it get itself back on course?
Well, obviously having an Administrator would help a lot, someone actually in charge of the thing. President Obama is a busy man, I know, with a lot of things on his mind - fighting terrorism, treating flu pandemics, addressing the global financial meltdown, not to mention clearing up dog poop from off the expensive White House carpets – but NASA is one of his country’s flagships, one of its highest profile “brands” if you like. Having it run by the equivalent of a football club’s “caretaker manager” for this long is just stupid. It sends out a dreadful message to the rest of the world – that NASA is seen as unimportant by the US Government. This really, really needs to be sorted out soon. Then, and only then, can NASA move on and steer a new course.
Hmmm. If I was given the job of Adminiatrstor (not VERY likely, I know, but I’ve got the phone within reach, just in case…!) what would I do? Well…
1. Give NASA a new core mission – a genuine, inspiring, important goal: the search for other forms of life in the Universe. The greatest scientific question of all time is, simply, “Are We Alone?”, and if there’s one spacey subject that the public are really interested in / fascinated by / passionate about, it’s “aliens”. NASA should go look for them! Not UFO aliens, real aliens, real extraterrestrial life, both primitive and advanced. This would mean designing interplanetary robotic missions to specifically look for life in our own solar system – on the surface of Mars, beneath the icy crust of Europa, in the lakes and atmosphere of Titan etc – as well as seeking out Earthlike planets in orbit around other stars and ascertaining if life exists on their surfaces. This core mission should also include re-energising NASA’s involvement in SETI.
2. Commit NASA to involvement in manned expedition to Mars as soon as possible, either as part of an international mission, or on its own. The public are fascinated by Mars, and see it as a new frontier, a genuinely interesting place – everything the Moon isn’t.
3. Task NASA to find out, once and for all, if there is a provable, genuinely good case for going back to the Moon, or if that’s just been selected as The Next Goal because it’s so close and we did it once before. If there is a good case, if the exploration of the Moon would impact upon the lives of the general public in good ways – and not just help scientists write papers for another decade – then let people know about it! If there aren’t good financial, economic or technology advancing reasons then admit defeat and move on… to the next world. To Mars. And if it’s really too late to completely turn its back on the Moon, if there’s too much hardware in the development pipeline, then ‘fess up to it, tell people that the supertanker can’t be turned around – and refocus the Moon program as an element of a manned Mars program. Stop trying to make the mining of Helium 3 sound exciting – it isn’t, it really isn’t – and promote Moon missions as stepping stones on the way to Mars. Be straight with the people paying the bills, tell them that we want to go to Mars, but can’t yet because we don’t know enough about how to do it properly and safely. Going – back – to the Moon would help us figure out how to do it.
4. SELL NASA PROPERLY! Make sure everyone knows just how many “space spin-offs” there are, and how many ways space technology touches and affects their lives. NASA has always seemed to me to be inexplicably coy about banging its own drum when it comes to “space spinoffs”, they should be shouting out their achievements and successes from the roof of the VAB! NASA should pay companies that manufacture “space spin-off” products to put special stickers on them SAYING that they’re space spin-offs. Spread the word! Shout out “We helped make this!” Then people might begin to realise that money given to NASA isn’t packed into an empty rocket and fired off into space, never to be seen again, it’s spent here on Earth, making things for normal people, paying people’s wages, etc etc.
If NASA followed that path – or, being more realistic, adopted even just a couple of its elements – I think it would be a huge step forward.
It must be SO frustrating to work for NASA right now! I’m lucky to have met quite a few people who do, now, so I know for a fact that they’re passinate, caring, dedicated individuals who really “get” this space stuff as much as I do. You can hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes when they talk (hi Scott and Veronica!) But they’re all shackled by two sets of chains – political leaders who couldn’t find their arses without both hands and a map, and a lack of leadership within NASA itself. They deserve better, much better.
In an ideal world we’d be working towards this vision of the future… “Postcards From The Future“…
…but we’re a long, long way from that yet. If we’re to get there ever, then something has to be done about NASA’s becalmed state now, it really does. And the solution? Well, the two key words I simply can’t get away from are “Life” and “Mars”. NASA should be Out There looking for Life, and planning on sending people to see, with their own startled eyes, the towering volcanoes, deep valleys and rock-strewn, golden plains of Mars.
Everything else is just faffing around.
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