March 17th, 2010

Moon vs. Mars at Museum ScienceInsider

The American Museum of Natural History had little idea of how prescient they were being when they picked the theme for this year’s Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate. Shortly after the museum directors decided on the debate topic, “The Moon, Mars and Beyond: Where Next for the Manned Space Program?”, the federal budget was announced on 1 February, revealing that NASA’s Constellation project of crewed moon missions had been canceled. Kicking off the annual event last night to a sold-out auditorium, Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “What was originally just going to be us putting out opinions now turns out to have huge implications.”
Although moon and Mars missions are often discussed as if they were mutually exclusive alternatives, general consensus among the scientists on the panel was that even if putting a human on Mars were the paramount long-term goal, returning humans to the moon would still be a critical step toward that end. “The moon is a good place to test out the technology for a Mars mission, like life-support systems and transport vehicles. … I think that casting it in terms of ‘Do we go to the moon first or go to Mars?’ is not the right question,” Steven Squyres, principal investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover project, said after the debate.
Instead, the broader question to which the panelists kept returning was not simply which destination NASA should target first but what will happen if NASA has no clear destination at all.

December 22nd, 2009

Obama Backs New Launcher and Bigger NASA Budget ScienceInsider

President Barack Obama will ask Congress next year to fund a new heavy-lift launcher to take humans to the moon, asteroids, and the moons of Mars, ScienceInsider has learned. The president chose the new direction for the U.S. human space flight program Wednesday at a White House meeting with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, according to officials familiar with the discussion. NASA would receive an additional $1 billion in 2011 both to get the new launcher on track and to bolster the agency’s fleet of robotic Earth-monitoring spacecraft. According to knowledgeable sources, the White House is convinced that scarce NASA funds would be better spent on a simpler heavy-lift vehicle that could be ready to fly as early as 2018. Meanwhile, European countries, Japan, and Canada would be asked to work on a lunar lander and modules for a moon base, saving the U.S. several billion dollars. And commercial companies would take over the job of getting supplies to the international space station.

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