Image: Manned mission
Dan Durda  /  FIAAA
One of the potential targets for future space exploration could be an asteroid, as shown here in an artist's interpretation.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/7/2010 11:51:53 AM ET 2010-05-07T15:51:53

Three months ago, the White House stirred up a space controversy when it called for the cancellation of NASA's Constellation back-to-the-moon plan.

Some in Congress feared that canceling Constellation was a prescription for turning the United States into a second-rate space power — and they pledged to restore funding for the development of new NASA rockets known as the Ares 1 and Ares 5.

Since then, NASA, the White House and Congress have been hammering out the details of a three-pronged plan for America’s future in space. The plan that's emerging would restore hundreds of skilled jobs that might have been lost due to the retirement of NASA's shuttle fleet, and would revive elements of the Constellation.

A consensus is beginning to build in support of the revised plan, which will get NASA moving ahead on three fronts. The plan is still in flux, but here's what each front looks like from a Cape Canaveral vantage point:

The frontier: Sending humans beyond Earth orbit
NASA's goal is to send people to Mars when it knows how. The plan calls for a series of steppingstones — the so-called flexible path — beginning with a six-day return to the vicinity of the moon. The voyage around the moon would be followed by a month-long trip to one of the Earth-sun Lagrange points, known as L1.

A Lagrange point is a position of gravitational equilibrium in a system consisting of three masses in space. Five such points exist, designated L1 through L5. In theory, a spaceship could park at L1 and stay there using little energy. The Earth-moon L1 point is about 200,000 miles from Earth, and the Earth-sun L1 point is about 930,000 miles from Earth.

When NASA is comfortable with these near-Earth flights, in the 2025 time frame, the next step will be to undertake weeks-long missions to asteroids. Then, astronauts would set out on a one- to two-year journey to fly by or land on one of Mars' moons. The time required for the trip would be determined by the capabilities of advanced rocket engines.

Slideshow: Month in Space Touching down on one of the Red Planet's natural satellites would allow the astronauts to return to Earth using less energy than they would need for landing on and blasting off from Mars itself.

This plan is receiving higher marks than President George W. Bush's vision of returning and landing on the moon before trying for Mars.

In Congress, one big concern about the flexible-path plan was whether enough money would be available for developing the heavy-lift rockets required for trips beyond Earth orbit. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and former spaceflier who now chairs the Senate's subcommittee on space policy, is gaining the support of other influential Senate committees for adding $726 million to the president's budget request for the next fiscal year.

The money would go toward preparations for another Ares 1 launch with a high-altitude abort test in 2013, followed by additional tests in 2014 and 2015. Nelson says this would save hundreds of space jobs and also shave years off the development cycle for the heavy-lifters.

Nelson has arranged a high-profile Senate hearing on the future of U.S. human spaceflight for May 12, just two days before the shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off on its final trip to the International Space Station. Among those who may testify are Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan, the first man and the last man to walk on the moon.

Closer to home: Commercial space taxis
California-based SpaceX is No. 1 on the runway when it comes to replacing the space shuttle with new made-in-the-USA transports to the International Space Station. The commercial company has been dealing with a series of delays, and the first launch of its Falcon 9 rocket is now scheduled to occur no earlier than the second half of this month.

The idea is that a commercial rocket and spaceship would cost less, but would it?

Critics say commercial spaceships are like commercial airliners, needing government-run airports, control towers and centers, flight simulators, weather bureaus and forecasters. Even if SpaceX is successful, it will need similar services from NASA. The space effort will also need the U.S. Navy to recover astronauts at sea.

The commercial guys say they're ready to take care of trips to the space station in low Earth orbit while NASA takes care of the challenging deep-space missions.

Consensus?  We'll see.

Science in space: Send out the robots
Consensus?  Spend more.  Not just on orbital observatories and interplanetary missions, but on Earth missions, too.

The next big thing in space science will be an Atlas 5 launch in August 2011 that will send a solar-powered probe named Juno toward Jupiter. Juno will follow a pole-to-pole orbit around the giant planet to map its internal structure, its atmosphere and magnetosphere.

Following Juno is GRAIL, a mission due for launch in September 2011 to study our moon's interior from crust to core. Then there's the next big Mars mission: The Curiosity rover, a mobile science laboratory that will assess whether or not the Red Planet supports microbial life.

Why explore the solar system? Why send humans outward from our home planet? It's simple: We need to learn what's out there, and how to get out there in a sensible, step-by-step manner. Earth may be our cosmic cradle, but eventually we'll have to leave the cradle and make other homes in the universe. We have to explore. Our long-term survival depends on it.

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