Thursday, January 4, 2007

“Stuck on the Moon”

Another aspect of Lou Friedman’s recent rant about the shortcomings of NASA’s new lunar architecture is his fear the we will get “stuck on the Moon.” By this, he means that NASA will become so involved in the construction and maintenance of lunar outpost infrastructure that there will be no resources left for a human mission to Mars.

This attitude fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of the Vision for Space Exploration. Friedman’s not alone; many at NASA are under similar misapprehensions. In the decade before the announcement of the VSE, many in the space community had pressed repeatedly for a national commitment to a human mission to Mars. In fact, the Mars Society was founded on this single assumption: that Mars is the only destination for humans in space. When the VSE was announced, many in this group assumed that their fondest desires had been answered, a manned mission to Mars.

In fact, the Vision has a different set of goals. Our “ultimate destination” is nothing less than the entire solar system. Yes, a human Mars mission figures prominently in Vision documents, but the VSE also mentions “other destinations.” And that’s a whole other story.

A speech last year by Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger is a key document on the fundamental purposes of the Vision. This exposition makes it clear that the Vision is much more than simply a “Mars mission” – or even a simply a lunar one. Its purpose is nothing less than the expansion of humanity into the solar system. That’s why particular emphasis is placed on the use of space resources, the materials and energy found naturally in space, gathered and turned into usable form. By harnessing space resources, we begin to “cut the cord” with the Earth, critical skills needed by any true space-faring species. We begin to do this on the Moon, simply because it’s close and has the resources needed to learn how to do this.

Friedman sees the Moon as an obstacle – a stone in his path on the way to Mars. I see it as a stone too – a stepping stone. On the Moon, we will learn how to live on another world, protect ourselves, provide for, and build a transportation system that will permit us to go anywhere we want, with whatever capabilities we need, for as long as we need. We do not have such capabilities now and the only way we can ever get them is begin to use what we find in space to create them. This will enable not only trips to Mars, but other journeys into the rest of the solar system.

Stuck on the Moon? Hardly. The Moon will soon become part of man’s world. We will continue to expand our reach into space …one step, and one planet at a time.