NASA has officially announced its plans to put a permanent base on the Moon. This is all part of the Moon, Mars and Beyond program that has sucked the life out of astrophysics research at the agency. But going to the Moon would be incredibly exciting in its own right, if it didn’t cost any money. (Nobody knows how much it actually will cost.)
The plan is to first finish building the International Space Station using the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle is scheduled to be retired once and for all in 2010 — so I gather that we won’t actually be doing much with the ISS once we finish building it. Meanwhile, NASA will be developing a new set of spacecraft, featuring the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle that will be launched on Ares rockets. The goal is for the new system to be functional by 2014, if not earlier.
And then on to the Moon — reaching there by 2020, hopefully with a continually-manned station by 2024. Not much is known about what such a base would look like, although there is some idea of putting it somewhere that the astronauts could replenish some resources through mining. The South Lunar Pole is apparently an interesting destination, perhaps near Shackleton crater.
It’s frustrating to be so lukewarm about the Great Human Adventure in Space, about which I’d much prefer to be enthusiastic. But nothing about the operation inspires confidence, much less wonder. NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale described the program in this tired bit of management-speak:
“This strategy will enable interested nations to leverage their capabilities and financial and technical contributions, making optimum use of globally available knowledge and resources to help energize a coordinated effort that will propel us into this new age of discovery and exploration.”
Do people really talk like that? It sounds straight out of Dilbert. Complete with numbingly bullet-pointed Powerpoint presentation!
Maybe the concerns are misplaced, and NASA will be able to aggressively pursue human exploration of space without sacrificing their unique contributions to cutting-edge astrophysics. But I’d be just as happy to let NASA concentrate on the science at which they excel, and leave the space-cowboy stuff to the X-prize folks.