Human Missions to Moon Get Boost in New Global Roadmap, But NASA Still a "No"

Human Missions to Moon Get Boost in New Global Roadmap, But NASA Still a "No"

NASA and 11 other space agencies released an updated Global Exploration Roadmap (GER) today that quite prominently includes human missions to the surface of the Moon as part of a steppingstone strategy to send people to Mars.  But in an op-ed also published today, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden makes clear that NASA has no such plans.

Whether lunar surface missions are a prerequisite to, or a diversion from, the long-term goal of setting foot on Mars has been a topic of intense debate since the Obama Administration cancelled the Constellation program in 2010.  Its position was that Constellation was unaffordable and returning to the lunar surface unnecessary.  The GER report released today disagrees on the latter point.

“Human missions to the lunar surface will allow critical demonstrations of planetary exploration capabilities and techniques, while pursuing the highest priority lunar science objectives,” the report concludes.

Lunar surface missions are only one aspect of the roadmap, developed by the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG).  The International Space Station is highlighted as an “excellent platform” for activities in preparation for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.  Robotic missions, advanced technology development, development of new space systems and infrastructure, analogue activities, and managing health and human performance risks are other elements of the roadmap.

ISEGC is a forum for discussion of space objectives and plans.  It comprises space agencies from Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the European Space Agency.   All but China and Australia are listed in the credits for this report.  ISEGC reports are non-binding.

Although NASA helped formulated the roadmap, the endorsement of human lunar surface missions does not signal a change of stance for the United States.

The report states that “[a]ll nations will not necessarily participate in every element of mission depicted in this roadmap.”  To emphasize that point, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden wrote an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle, published today, in which he clarifies that the United States still has no plans to send humans to the lunar surface.

Reminding everyone that the United States is the only country that has already sent people to the Moon, not to mention many robotic spacecraft, Bolden says “as we plan for the wisest use of our limited resources, NASA chooses to do something new, as it always has.”   However, NASA supports “our commercial and international partners as they chart their own paths to the moon.”

The op-ed coincided with NASA introducing to the media its latest class of astronauts.   Bolden begins the op-ed by saying that the new astronauts will “carry America’s hopes, dreams and curiosity first to an asteroid and one day to Mars.”  Later he says the GER “demonstrates the important role of NASA’s asteroid mission in advancing capabilities for exploring Mars and the economic and societal values generated by exploration.” 

In 2007, ISECG released a Global Exploration Strategy.  In 2011, it published an initial version of this Global Exploration Roadmap.   Today’s iternation is an update that merges the two pathways to Mars discussed in the 2011 report — “Asteroid First” and “Moon First.”   The United States appears to be the only ISECG member interested in sending humans to asteroids, although today’s report does not preclude it.   Asteroids are one of many potential intemediate destinations outlined.   The key difference between today’s roadmap and U.S. plans is that it includes human missions to the lunar surface.

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