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Will NASA’s plans turn into a moondoggle?

Will the construction of a moon base mark a great leap in planning for a human mission to Mars or prove a wasteful diversion of funds? Scientists debate the issue.
/ Source: Reuters

Will the construction of a moon base mark a great leap in planning for a human mission to Mars or prove a wasteful diversion of funds?

Officials working with NASA gave conflicting views during a meeting of space scientists on Wednesday, a week after the U.S. space agency announced that it plans to build a permanently occupied lunar base, with human flights slated to begin by 2020.

Humanity's first visit to the moon since 1972 would be aimed at providing a test bed for technologies needed for future travel to Mars. Some experts, however, are concerned that the cost of building a moon base could delay the exploration of Mars at a time of exciting discoveries there.

Just last week, images from NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft suggested the presence of liquid water on the Martian surface, a tantalizing find that raised the chance that the planet has harbored life. Two rover craft continue to send back stunning images and data from the surface, nearly three years after beginning what was expected to be a three-month mission.

“It would be very unfortunate to lose the momentum that we have with these very exciting Mars discoveries toward the middle part of the next decade,” said Ray Arvidson, deputy principal investigator of the Mars Exploration Rover Mission.

That’s “when inflation and current budget projections just make it difficult to continue at the pace that we are on right now,” he told the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Baby steps to Mars
In an interview during the conference, the director of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program defended the moon base plans as an important steppingstone to Mars.

“The moon is important because we don’t know how to live on an outpost on another planetary body,” said Douglas McCuistion.

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“We can take a baby step by putting a moon base out there and spending time on the surface of the moon, learning how to work in that environment, learning about the effects on health and psychology and things like that.”

Arvidson said officials had already planned a series of exciting robotic Mars missions in the next few years, but that budget diversions by the middle of the next decade could, for example, end hopes to return samples from Mars or send a larger rover to search for signs of life.

“Those become very difficult to do in the constrained financial environment,” he said. “And it’s because of the re-emphasis of the moon.”

Robot fan speaks up for humans
Speaking on the same panel, the principal scientific investigator of the Mars rovers, Steven Squyres, was more enthusiastic about the moon base plans.

“I’m a big fan of sending robots to Mars,” the Cornell University professor said, “but I firmly believe that the best way to explore Mars is going to be with humans.”

“You have to realize we haven’t left low Earth orbit in the last 30 years. We need someplace to flex our deep space muscles again before we go zooming off to Mars, and the moon is the obvious choice to do that.”

NASA’s McCuistion said a human Mars mission was unlikely before the early 2030s.

Because of the course of Mars’ orbit, a round-trip mission for human exploreres would involve a stay of either just seven to 10 days, out of a total mission duration of a year to 18 months; or a three-year odyssey with more than a year on the Red Planet, he said.