NASA's road back to the moon and onward to Mars is not only technologically challenging but it may also be a proposition that could fall short due to lack of needed funding.
As kick-started by President George Bush in January 2004, NASA's vision of extending the human touch beyond low Earth orbit is being subjected to lack of both White House and Congressional budget support.
That's the view from Congressman Nick Lampson of Texas' 22nd Congressional District that represents NASA's Johhnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
"The budgets are not there. We're seeing a business as usual approach that is not going to deliver the robust and broad-based exploration program laid out in the vision for space exploration," Lampson said today at the National Space Society's 26th Annual International Space Development Conference being held here May 25-28.
Adding his voice of concern regarding the overall budgetary health of NASA's expansive exploration agenda was former shuttle astronaut, Michael Coats, now the 10th director of the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
"The President's fiscal year 2008 budget request is absolutely vital to NASA after the cut we took with the continuing resolution this year," Coats observed.
Coats stressed the need for all to recognize the strategic importance of civil space program to the nation. Moreover, for the United States to maintain a leadership role, he said, far more emphasis must be placed on the need for math, science and engineering education.
"The space program is important, not only for our national security, but our economy...and the two of those are tied together," Coats emphasized.
Minimalist exploration architecture
As NASA blueprints new desires to return to the moon, the United States is at a similar point faced in the 1960s - the epic times of the Apollo program that led to six expeditions to the surface of that nearby world.
But questioned NASA's Coats: "There is no doubt that humans will return to the moon. The only question is which humans...which country will send them...what values will they bring? We are the generation to help determine if the national will to lead still exists."
Regarding the NASA moon, Mars and beyond vision quest, Coats highlighted international involvement.
"We have defined a minimalist exploration architecture centered on the Orion (the post-shuttle piloted craft), Ares crew and heavy lift launch vehicles as first critical elements" said Coats, "with the hope that international and commercial partners will want to augment these capabilities with their own."
Moving out beyond Earth orbit and beyond the moon is rife with danger and still-to-be-thwarted hazards, Coats warned.
"The potential risks to human health on long duration missions beyond Earth orbit represent the greatest challenge to human exploration of deep space," Coats emphasized
While work onboard the International Space Station is helping to study the impact on the human body of long duration space travel, there's still miles to go in beating back potential medical issues.
For one, intense levels of radiation spewed out from the Sun "is one of the real challenges to carrying out long duration space missions," Coats said. There are mutli-faceted solutions needed and already being worked upon, he added.
Another challenge of departing the Earth for longer treks in space is recycling.
To maintain space crews on missions two or three years away from Earth will be demanding, Coats said. "We will have to be self-sustaining for the first time in human history."
For the long haul, beyond the moon and Mars, Coats added: "We're trying to keep our aperture open."