NASA Solidifies Plans to Send Astronauts Back to Moon
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GWEN IFILL: NASA’s plans to return to the moon came into much sharper focus yesterday, with the announcement it will build a small base at the moon’s south pole by 2024.
For more about this plan, we turn to Keith Cowing, editor of NASAWatch.com, an online space news publication.
Keith, welcome. And remind us again, why is it that we want to go back to the moon?
KEITH COWING, Editor, NASAWatch.com: Well, what you saw today, Gwen, was sort of, like you said, bringing things into sharper focus from a speech that President Bush made back in January 2004, where he simply said we’re going back to the moon to learn how to live there and then to learn how to go on to explore other planets.
But we also want to explore the moon as a scientific object in its own right. So what you saw today was further sharpening of these goals and objectives so as to take the president’s vision, as they call it, and put it into hardware.
The moon as a resource
GWEN IFILL: OK, let's talk about putting the vision into reality here. So what are the technical requirements that they're talking about, in order to go to the moon? They're setting up a lunar camp essentially where they're allowed to stay longer than they have in previous up-and-back visits.
KEITH COWING: Yes, well, the Apollo program had, you know, visits -- sorties, if you want to use another term -- where you would go visit for a few days and leave, and that's it, and you'd probably not go back.
They decided to adopt a different approach where you go to one place, preferably the south pole of the moon, where you have abundant energy and possibly water resources. And every successive mission, you build up a greater capability.
Now, that gives you two things. It gives you a place to stay for long periods of time, but you can also reach out from that place to other parts of the moon. And this is not unlike if you look at what we did in Antarctica. This is something very analogous, except it's in a much harsher environment and it's much further away from home.
GWEN IFILL: Where do you get power from for something like that?
KEITH COWING: Well, due to the way that the moon orbits the Earth, it sort of tilts a little bit. In the south pole, there are places at the southernmost part of the moon where you get periods of almost complete sunshine. And you just put your solar cells up, and you're able to get power a good part of a lunar month.
But in addition to that, just as there are peaks in areas that are constantly lit, there are also places that are constantly dark. And there is evidence possibly that there is water ice in those very, very cold regions.
So next to each other, you've really got abundant power almost all the time and possibly water which can be used either for breathing, for humans, or for rocket fuel. So it's a wonderful sort of "two for the price of one."
GWEN IFILL: Now, you said that this camp could be used as a launching place for other trips around the moon. How about beyond the moon?
KEITH COWING: Well, there's a question as to whether you want to go to the moon to use it as a launching pad to go elsewhere. I think the jury is still out as to whether that is the best way to do stuff.
But one of the things you can do from a technological point of view and from the human factor is to go to a place that is far away enough from Earth that you really have to know what you're doing to live there, but if you had to come back in an emergency you could.
But it gives you a place to really practice this technology such that, when you go to Mars, you're not going to be able to turn around and come home in a couple of days. You really want to know that your stuff works in a real harsh environment.
So that's really one of the clear advantages of going to the moon and setting up a permanent base.
Funding the endeavor
GWEN IFILL: Now, let's talk money. Is there a national appetite for what it will cost? I read somewhere today $125 billion to get the first landing by 2018.
KEITH COWING: Well, that's the question, isn't it? Last year, when the initial version of this was brought out, the very first question from somebody from NPR was, and we're all there waiting to ask it, was: How much will this cost?
And we were told that it would be $104 million to get one mission back there. Well, that was then; this is now. And you really can't get NASA to come up with a number.
And it's not -- well, I guess it is they don't quite know what it will cost because an aspect of this architecture is that it's open-sourced. They're looking for a participation from other nations. Now, how much of this would be done by, you know, Europe, for example, or by Russia is to be determined.
But NASA is looking to offer the sort of basic infrastructure, how to get people and hardware there, but they still haven't figured out exactly how they're going to do it. And therefore, they're a little shy about giving you a number, and $104 million, $130 million, it could be higher. Nobody quite knows.
GWEN IFILL: Well, how then do you convince the American public or other nations who you will be asking to join with -- the government would be asking to join -- that this is worth doing for its own sake? That is, exploring for the sake of exploration versus exploring because it's going to bring back scientific knowledge that will help people on Earth.
KEITH COWING: Well, you kind of answered the question yourself. And I sort of put this to Scott Horowitz today, knowing that I might be on this evening.
And, you know, the traditional response is, you know, great nations explore, and it's something that, you know, throughout history great nations have done. That may be true, but this is the 21st century. It's the Internet age. You need answers like the moment after you ask the question, and you really need to provide the rationale for doing this.
And to a certain extent, you know, people are wondering, "Can we trust NASA with all the other programs that have run over, in terms of cost and schedule?" And I think the jury is still out on that.
The moon offers us a chance to understand a part of the history of the Earth, because many believe it was torn from the Earth. The moon allows us to possibly do a lot of science that you could not do on the surface of the Earth, for example, telescopes to do astronomy.
But in terms of it being an endeavor that the American people and possibly other nations are going to be asked to spend billions of dollars, I do think NASA -- and they're working on this -- but I do think NASA has to come up with some crisper answers, ones that just don't reach to one part of the populous, but to young people, as well as your Joe six-pack, to people who are retired and wondering who's going to be paying their medical bills.
I think NASA really needs to focus on that why, not the how.
Replacing the space shuttle
GWEN IFILL: And before that happens, 2010 is when the space shuttle is supposed to be retired. How are astronauts going to get to the moon if the space shuttle is retired?
KEITH COWING: Well, one of the things about the vision for space exploration, one of the very first things that President Bush said, is that we're going to retire the space shuttle, and he set a goal of 2010. And NASA is working very diligently to do that.
But they need to replace it with something which is kind of like "Back to the Future." It looks like Apollo, and that's not a mistake. It's meant to be designed to carry people from, initially, Earth to the International Space Station, but eventually to the moon.
And it's a capsule. And you'll see there's a lunar lander and so forth. But all this is new, and it has to be built.
And although we did this a generation-and-a-half ago, that was then. This is now. We have to sort of relearn how we did stuff. And the question is: When we retire the shuttle in 2010, there will be a gap of one, two, three, four, five or six years, possibly, and can America really sit here and not have its own access to the space station for that period of time?
We found it problematical after the Columbia accident, and there's a lot of people in Congress that think that, perhaps, that gap should be shortened. And, of course, that means more money, which is back to one of your earlier questions.
GWEN IFILL: Well, that was then; this is now. And we're talking about the future, Keith Cowing. Thank you very much for joining us.
KEITH COWING: My pleasure.