Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Human space exploration: asteroids vs. the Moon?

Sunflower solar panel-powered architecture, featuring the LER, Athlete and Chariot vehicles, that were well along in development before Congress and the Obama administration shelved the Constellation program [NASA/John Frassanito & Associates].
Jeff Foust

Two years ago, the Obama Administration changed the direction of the nation’s human spaceflight programs in a number of ways, including the destinations of those efforts. Gone was the goal of the previous administration of a human return to the Moon by 2020, a date that was looking increasingly unrealistic in the eyes of many, including the Augustine Committee that reviewed NASA’s plans in 2009. In its place was something resembling the “flexible path” approach in that committee’s final report, with the Moon replaced as an initial beyond-Earth destination by a near Earth asteroid. President Obama established a 2025 goal for a human mission to an asteroid in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010, also setting a goal of a human mission to Mars in the mid-2030s.

From a technical standpoint, a human mission to a near Earth asteroid could be done solely by the United States given both existing capabilities and those under development, like the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket. Yet, from a financial standpoint, particular in an era of constrained and even declining budgets, it’s likely the US will seek international partners for an asteroid mission, and almost certainly for later missions to Mars. But do the potential partners of the US also want to participate in human asteroid missions?

The recent Global Space Exploration Conference, or GLEX, held in Washington, DC last month by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), offered some mixed messages about international interest in human asteroid missions. Some space agency executives instead spoke openly about going back to the Moon, comments that have some support among former NASA officials who believe that human lunar exploration will have greater support internationally.

Perhaps the boldest endorsement of the Moon, and not near Earth asteroids, as the next destination for human exploration came from Vladimir Popovkin, general director of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Speaking at a plenary session at GLEX on May 22 that featured the leaders or other top officials of six space agencies, Popovkin suggested the Moon, and not the asteroids, was the preferred destination of the Russian space program.

“We arrived at the conclusion that the Moon is supposed to be the next target” for human exploration, Popovkin said through an interpreter. “We’re not trying to convince you that we shouldn’t be doing anything in the area of Mars exploration, asteroid exploration, just that, in our professional opinion, today we have much better chances to come up with very productive and tangible results when concentrating on the Moon.”

Read the in-depth article, HERE.

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