NASA Disputes Chronicle Report That NASA Is Reassessing Lunar Surface Plans

NASA Disputes Chronicle Report That NASA Is Reassessing Lunar Surface Plans

NASA officials are disputing the Houston Chronicle’s April 3 story that NASA is “quietly” reassessing the need for missions to the lunar surface before traveling to Mars.  Chronicle science reporter Eric Berger wrote that “senior NASA engineers” are involved in the reassessment, but NASA officially responded that the agency continues to plan only for operations in cis-lunar space.

Berger’s article quotes NASA Associate Administrator for Human Spaceflight Bill Gerstenmaier discussing the advantages of producing fuel from lunar resources (called in-situ resource utilization or ISRU) to propel astronauts to Mars.  Berger characterizes Gerstenmaier as favoring lunar surface missions, saying he “appears to be steering the agency back toward a program that would more fully utilize the moon” as part of NASA’s “Evolvable Mars Campaign” that lays out the steps to landing humans on the Martian surface.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz told via email that Gerstenmaier was only responding to a question from Berger about the possibility of using lunar resources for Mars missions.  “The Evolvable Mars Campaign, which envisions using the lunar vicinity to support a human mission to the Red Planet, is in line with and designed to advance the president’s ambitious space exploration plan.  We’re making great progress on this journey to Mars.  A key element of our plan to get to the Red Planet is employing a stepping stone approach, including living, working and learning in cis-lunar space.”

Cis-lunar is the area between the Earth and the Moon or in lunar orbit.

The statement sidesteps the substance of the Chronicle article – that NASA engineers are reassessing the need for lunar surface missions, but are in a “delicate position” because returning to the lunar surface is not part of President Obama’s plan.

David Weaver (@David Weaver), NASA Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications, and Berger (@chronsciguy) engaged in a Twitter exchange about the article as well.  Weaver said there was “nothing new” about NASA’s plan to use the Moon, but it involves operations in cis-lunar space, not on the surface.  Berger replied “Respectfully disagree; ISRU idea is new and would require a substantial investment of time and money at the Moon.”  [UPDATE: Berger posted more about his story on his blog on April 6.]

The debate over the future of the human spaceflight program remains as intense as ever.  There is widespread agreement among human spaceflight enthusiasts that the long-term goal is sending people to land on Mars.  The argument is over the steps to get there.  The Obama Administration cancelled the Constellation program, initiated by President George W. Bush, to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars because it was deemed unaffordable.  President Obama set the United States on a different path that does not require spending money on systems to get astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface and back or facilities on the Moon itself.  Instead they are to travel to an asteroid as the next step to Mars.   The current plan is called the Asteroid Redirect Mission – ARM — and involves moving part of an asteroid to cis-lunar space where astronauts will collect a sample and return it to Earth.

ARM has not garnered much support, energizing a long-standing debate over whether lunar surface missions – to mine resources to turn into fuel or to test equipment on an alien surface that is just three days from the safety of Earth before sending it to Mars, at least a 6 month (one-way) journey – are required before committing to human Mars missions.

Just one day prior to the publication of the Chronicle article, The Planetary Society announced the findings of a workshop that argue in favor of sending astronauts to orbit Mars before committing to a landing.  Details of the proposal reviewed at the workshop are not public, but at the April 2 press conference, a list of the steps was read and it includes just one mission to the lunar surface, to test the Mars lander, and does not involve utilization of lunar resources.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Human Exploration and Operations Committee will meet April 7-8 in Washington, DC.  The agenda for April 8  includes an update on ARM at 1:35 pm ET and on the Evolvable Mars Campaign at 2:35 pm ET.   The meeting is open to the public up to the seating capacity of the room.  It also is available virtually via WebEx and telecon.  The full NAC meets on April 9-10.  At their last meeting, they had a very lively discussion about ARM.

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