The Speculist: Not Everyone Keen on Return to Moon

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Not Everyone Keen on Return to Moon

Some apparently think there are better ways of getting back into serious space exploration, and on to Mars:

NASA's current plan for manned space exploration focuses on establishing a base on the moon, as a vital stepping stone for a visit to Mars. The initiative has been trumpeted by the Bush administration, which wants the first mission to launch by 2020. But trouble is brewing as a growing group of former mission managers, planetary scientists and astronauts argues against any manned moon mission at all. One alternative, they say: Send astronauts to an asteroid as a better preparation for a Martian landing.

The dissenters plan to gather in mid-February at a meeting of the Planetary Society at Stanford University. “We want to get a positive recommendation to the new administration,” says Planetary Society executive director Louis D. Friedman. He supports an eventual mission to Mars, but argues that the current moon scheme was selected with inadequate debate after a speech by President Bush in January 2004. “If you said ‘humans’ and ‘Mars’ [to NASA officials] in the same sentence, you would receive a figurative slap on the face, and then four months later [the moon-to-Mars plan] was the main point on a viewgraph at the highest levels.”

The real shame here is that everything is viewed in such either/or terms. Rather than having NASA spend bazillions on what will almost certainly be a big compromise mission to who-knows-where 12, 15, or 20 or more years from now, why not take that money and start some serious push prizes. How about a $2 billion push prize for a permanent private space station in earth orbit? Maybe a $5 billion prize for a permanent settlement on the moon? A $10 billion prize for a manned mission to Mars?

Perhaps my prize figures are far too low, but you could multiply them each by ten and we would still see:

  1. Faster progress than NASA is likely to make

  2. At a lower net cost

This model of having government committees endlessly debate this stuff while some guy at the top named "the administrator" calls the shots is beyond tired. And I don't mean any disrespect to him or any of the fine folks at NASA who are making heroic efforts to get something going. It just seems like it's time for a new model, and we already have substantial evidence as to what kind of model will work.

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