Image: Lunar Discovery Orbiter
This artist's conception of a Lunar Discovery Orbiter was drawn up nine years ago, but the mission was never funded. Now NASA says it is on track to send a robotic probe, most likely an orbiter, to the moon in 2008.
By Senior Science Writer
updated 2/5/2004 8:35:17 PM ET 2004-02-06T01:35:17

Planning for NASA's return to the moon is now in full swing, and officials expect to meet the tight timetable of putting a robot there by 2008. Meanwhile, the focus of robotic Mars missions will soon shift to further preparations for human exploration.

As analysts had expected, a stark financial and resource refocusing is under way at NASA, in which robotic efforts will be planned less for pure science and more for supporting future human spaceflight.

The first mission to the moon will likely be an orbiter that generates NASA's first digital map of the pockmarked world, officials said Wednesday. It will be a reconnaissance craft designed to help prepare for a return of astronauts as early as 2015, as envisioned last month by President Bush.

The second new lunar foray, in 2009, will be with a robotic lander whose goals are not yet clear.

"These missions will not be driven by science," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for the NASA’s Office of Space Science. "They will be driven by preparations for human landings."

The initial robotic journey back to the moon will nonetheless yield "a lot of science," Weiler said, but "we are going to the moon to prepare to go to Mars, where we will do the real science."

Paying for the vision
Some geologists are eager for human exploration of Mars in order to conduct an investigation more thorough than what can be accomplished with robots. Some say only humans will be able to determine whether Mars does or ever did harbor life, and only humans can turn all the pages of the complex book of geology written in Martian rocks.

Critics argue that you can send dozens of robots for the price of one manned mission.

Weiler and his colleagues spoke to reporters Wednesday in a conference call, explaining details of the president's 2005 budget request that has just been sent to Congress.

In that request is additional funding for NASA, lifting the agency's budget from $15.38 billion to $16.24 billion. It also details how existing funds will be redirected to support the White House goal of returning astronauts to the moon and eventually putting people on Mars.

Astronomers and planetary scientists have worried that the president's new vision might cause casualties in robotic and telescopic programs.

"Space science is alive and well," Weiler declared. "We have healthy budget increases. In comparison to the rest of the government we obviously have nothing to complain about."

However, NASA remains firm, he said, on a decision not to service the Hubble Space Telescope. That conclusion was reached based on concern for astronaut safety, not budget issues, the agency maintains. Hubble could last into 2008 but almost surely not beyond.

Back to the moon
The 2005 NASA spending request — less than 1 percent of the overall federal budget — must be approved by Congress and could be picked apart. Space policy analysts say Bush and NASA must convince lawmakers and the public that the added cost of sending people beyond low-Earth orbit is worthwhile.

Space science would get $4.07 billion, up from $3.97 billion in 2004. Earth science would drop from $1.61 billion to $1.49 billion. Biological science research would rise from $985 million to $1.05 billion.

The remainder of the budget would be spent mostly on human spaceflight efforts, including the shuttle program, the space station, and research into a new vehicle capable of flying astronauts to the moon. Bush has called for a phase-out of the shuttles after space station construction is completed. Then money from both those projects would be diverted to the new vision.

In the new NASA, robotic missions must more closely relate to the overall effort to put people on other worlds.

Weiler pointed out that prior to the Apollo missions, robots photographed the moon from above and landers explored the surface. A similar but more expedited robotic campaign will be carried out this time.

NASA often plans robotic missions over the course of a decade or so. Now scheduling is on a comparative fast track.

"We've got a pretty good idea of what we want to do with the first moon mission," Weiler said, adding that he's confident the orbiter can be ready in four years.

"This will be the first digital recon mission of the Moon," he said. In addition to high-resolution photographs, the orbiter will likely work to map lunar resources, such as water ice that is suspected of hiding in permanently shadowed craters. Frozen water would be a key resource for any future moon base, providing drinking water and, when broken down into hydrogen, fuel for return flights or missions beyond the moon.

The initial lunar craft might also include a radiation detector. Ironically, NASA knows more about the potentially harmful radiation environment at Mars than it does at the moon. A follow-up lander mission, in 2009, may or may not include a rover, Weiler said.

New focus for Mars missions
Mars missions will begin shifting focus early in the next decade, said Orlando Figueroa, one of Weiler's top lieutenants and the NASA official in charge of exploring the moon and planets.

So far, Mars missions have been geared toward the search for water, as well as understanding the climate, atmosphere and environment as a whole. The new budget provides more money to examine safety issues at the Red Planet, "so we can begin preparing in a more focused way" for sending humans, Figueroa said.

He added that in 2011, the focus starts to shift from looking for water to looking for organic compounds, signs of life or signatures of the seeds of life.

Money has also now been set aside to prepare for a sample return mission to Mars. That effort, on the drawing boards for some time and once scheduled for launch as early as 2003, had not been adequately funded in terms of dealing with analysis of whatever is brought back. Funding to develop new technology for that effort is now written into the 2005 budget request.

Figueroa said a Mars sample return would launch in 2013 at the earliest. He said it would likely involve a static lander and not a roving craft.

Humans to Mars?
These missions, as well as the current rovers on Mars, will all generate a picture of the Red Planet that will help officials decide where to send humans, how they will survive, and what they'll need to take with them.

No timetable has been set for putting astronauts on Mars, though. The president called for continual re-evaluation of short-term spaceflight goals as technology improves and funding is secured in the years to come.

The White House vision was, at least in part, designed to get a flailing space agency back on track after the Columbia disaster. Many space policy experts have long said NASA has been largely directionless for three decades and that money was being wasted running circles around Earth.

Robotic failures also plagued the agency in the late 1990s.

Weiler said NASA's back-to-back failures in 1999, of the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, were blessings in disguise.

Had those missions succeeded, NASA would not have had the funding necessary to proceed with other missions on the ambitious Red Planet schedule that had been in place, he said. The failure led to a restructuring of the entire Mars program, with which he is now pleased.

"Sometimes failures are good things," Weiler said.

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