By Senior space writer
updated 7/19/2004 3:26:58 PM ET 2004-07-19T19:26:58

Left solely in NASA’s hands, the forecast is cloudy for realizing a 21st century where the Earth's moon is a bastion of creativity, economic growth, as well as a foothold for humanity’s greater leaps into deep space.

For attendees of the 5th annual Return to the Moon conference being held here from July 16-18, it is up to the private sector to help realize President Bush's new vision for space exploration and to revitalize humanity's forays to the Moon and beyond.

It’s not about just astronauts strutting across the lunar surface, said Manny Pimenta, Return to the Moon Project Director of the Space Frontier Foundation, the group that organized the conference. "We need to create in people’s minds that the possibility of space settlement is actually possible with the technology that exists today," Pimenta said. "It is inevitable that we will be living, working and playing on the Moon someday."

Alternative space movement
Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation believes we are at the dawning of a "new American space age," calling attention to the recent flight of SpaceShipOne, the privately backed effort that lobbed a pilot to the edge of space last month.

SpaceShipOne -- and other entrepreneurial efforts now ongoing -- signal the emergence and fast-paced nature of a "new alternative space movement," Tumlinson argued.

Another positive step is a major revamp of NASA, Tumlinson suggested. That overhaul, he said, is due in part to the Columbia tragedy in February 2003, as well as U.S. President George W. Bush’s call last January for a return to the Moon, then onward to Mars and beyond.

Tumlinson said that work is underway to "de-Bushify" NASA’s visionary call to arms, in order for it to be shared by both political parties. "From the President’s mouth to NASA’s ears is one hell of a journey," Tumlinson said, one that demands a private sector-government partnership or it will fail.

Business as unusual
"Hopefully, we are transitioning from old NASA to a new NASA," said James Benson, head of SpaceDev, a private space firm near San Diego, California. "We can still keep bashing NASA, but now we have to bash the old NASA and hope the new one emerges," he said.

That coming out party for a new NASA is tied to contracts the agency is soon awarding -- contracts intended to jell the President’s space initiative into a true action plan.

Benson said in the next six months, "either history will be written … or we’ll be back to business as usual."

Business as unusual would have NASA go beyond the traditional aerospace prime contractor community, Benson said. Doing so would assure more innovation, fast turnaround of products at lower-cost, he said.

One early endeavor, Benson said, is ringing the Moon with microsats. These would serve as a lunar Global Positioning System (GPS). For one, this lunar GPS would guide spacecraft loaded with equipment and science packages to safe, pinpoint landings at prime real estate on the Moon.

"We need to start building the infrastructure around the Moon now, as technology enablers,"Benson explained.

Clear direction
"I sense a change in the wind … a disturbance in the force," joked Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

Spudis was also a member of the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy that recently reported on how best to put polemics into practice.

Spudis saluted the space vision statement by U.S. President Bush of January 14th of this year, but the question remains: What NASA is supposed to become? "This was a different kind of vision," Spudis said. "For once we actually have a clear direction for our space program."

To eliminate human spaceflight and do academic robotic space science forever has been rejected by the White House, Spudis observed. What is now on the table is to actually use space resources to leverage things "to actually give you more than you have now.

Hidden agenda
Spudis said that there are people within NASA who are failing to see what the President has asked to be put in motion. "This is as clear a policy direction as we’ve ever had. And yet people at NASA persist in misunderstanding it."

There are those at NASA with an agenda "to kill this or morph it into something that it was never intended to be," Spudis warned.

The idea of a quick "touch and go" at the Moon, then get to Mars "because that’s where the real science is," is dead wrong, Spudis observed, based on the President’s directive.

"The point is to use the Moon to enable voyages elsewhere. Plus I dare say we actually have a few things we might be able to do on the Moon as well. It is an interesting place in its own right," Spudis said.

Tyranny of the rocket equation
There’s a lot of spade work to on the Moon first to enable a humans to Mars mission that is safe and easily done, Spudis told conference attendees.

"The vision is about creating new capability," Spudis added. "Right now humans are stuck in low Earth orbit. Robots are mass, power, and bandwidth limited. We want to break that. We want to be able to break the tyranny of the rocket equation."

That would be accomplished by using the resources that are available in space. And the Moon is the closest place to put that into practice, Spudis said.

"So, fundamentally, we need to play the hand that nature’s dealt us, Spudis concluded. "Since we’re here in Las Vegas … think of it in gambling terms. This is the hand we’ve got … can you play it or not?"

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