Habitat in Space

Moon Village vs. Journey to Mars

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Over the past eight years, the focus of NASA’s space vision has shifted from the moon, to a near-Earth asteroid, to the journey to Mars. The European Space Agency’s director-general, meanwhile, has been talking up the prospect of building a Moon Village. And one of the latest buzzwords for commercial space ventures is “cislunar” – that is, space operations in the vicinity of the moon.

What’s a future president to do?

Space policy ranks among the least prominent issues on the campaign agenda: GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, for example, says he loves space exploration but thinks it’s more important to fix potholes on Earth. Nevertheless, leaders of the space industry say the next president will play a key role in determining the world’s future course on the final frontier.

“Our next administration can lay the groundwork for the next couple of decades,” Larry Price, Lockheed Martin’s deputy program manager for the Orion spaceship development program, said here today during the 32nd Space Symposium.

The Orion deep-space crew vehicle is due to get its next flight test in 2018, riding for the first time atop NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System. The next president could still be in office by the time astronauts take their first ride on the Orion in 2023 or so.

Will he or she stay the course? The current scenario, laid out by the Obama administration in 2010, calls for continuing operations on the International Space Station until at least 2024. Meanwhile, a robotic spacecraft would retrieve a piece of a near-Earth asteroid in the 2020s and bring it back to cislunar space for an Orion crew to study. Such a mission would set the stage for crewed missions to Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

Six years ago, President Barack Obama gave lunar missions short shrift. “We’ve been there before,” he said at the time. Since then, however, the moon has come back into the picture as a potential proving ground for the more ambitious journeys to Mars.

ESA Director-General Jan Woerner wants to give the moon an even bigger spot on the roadmap for space exploration. His Moon Village concept calls for setting up a permanent base station on the lunar surface – a facility that would be open to many nations.

Today Woerner emphasized that he didn’t mean the “Moon Village” to be a village in the earthly sense of the word, with churches, houses and city streets. “For me, the Moon Village is the pit stop on the way to Mars,” he told attendees.

John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s space exploration division, said his advice for the next president would be to “keep the momentum on the path that we’re on.” In his view, there’s no need for the kind of overhaul that took place during the Obama administration and led to the cancellation of President George W. Bush’s Constellation back-to-the-moon program.

But who should be included on the journey to the moon and Mars? Former astronaut Leroy Chiao, who played a role in the earlier space-vision overhaul and now serves on the NASA Advisory Council, said the White House transition could bring an opportunity to cooperate more closely with China’s space effort. China is expected to launch its next space laboratory this year, as a potential steppingstone to greater ambitions.

“It’s an open secret that China plans to go to the moon,” Chiao said.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, who once served as NASA chief of staff, said that deciding whether to cooperate with China on space exploration will be a big issue for the next administration. “This, and the future of the ISS, are two big choices for the next president to make,” he said.

The choice on China is not solely up to the next president, however. It was Congress that pushed for restrictions on U.S.-Chinese space cooperation in 2011, out of concern over Beijing’s human rights record and the potential for technological espionage. There’s no indication that lawmakers have changed their mind on the issue. So is it realistic to think the situation will be any different in the next administration?

“I keep hoping,” Chiao said.