To the moon again? Or Mars?
The questions have hung over NASA for years, and emerged again at a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.
Under President George W. Bush, the target was the moon. Under Obama, who said “we’ve been there before,” Mars became the mission.
But now as his term nears its end, there is some increasingly vocal criticism of that decision, saying there isn’t the funding or political will to get to Mars.
Focusing on Mars is a “flawed policy direction,” Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University testified on Tuesday. The shift in goals “blindsided” the international space community, he said. The moon “is the next logical target for all of our potential international partners.”
Russia has endorsed sending astronauts there, he said. China sent an unmanned rover to the moon, and unveiled designs for a new heavy rocket for deep space exploration. It even has plans to build its own space station. “Growing space powers such as the Republic of Korea and India have their own unmanned lunar ambitions,” Pace said, while adding that the private sector has also made huge advancements.
To regain its prominence in space, the United States should “lead a multinational program to explore the moon," Pace said.
If it doesn’t, he could imagine a “post-American space world, with a full range of manned and unmanned space activities, but without American leadership or even, in many cases, an American presence.”
Testifying before the same committee, Buzz Aldrin, the Apollo 11 pilot who was the second man to walk on the moon, said NASA is right to focus on going beyond the moon. "American leadership is more than simply getting one step ahead of our global competitors," he said. "American leadership is inspiring the world by consistently doing what no other nation is capable of doing."
Aldrin said he's working on a plan to get to Mars, and the next president should press ahead with the mission.
“I believe that early in the next administration, the nation must commit to developing a permanent presence on Mars,” he said.
With much fanfare, NASA has trumpeted its “Journey to Mars” campaign. And it has highlighted the unmanned test flight of the Orion capsule last year as evidence of its progress toward reaching the Red Planet. It is also developing a new heavy rocket, known as the Space Launch System, designed to go to Mars and deep space.
But critics have maintained that without the funding to support such an endeavor, the attempt is a little more than a public relations stunt. And while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other members the committee on Tuesday said they were committed to the new rocket, others have been less supportive.
“We made a wrong decision when we went down this road,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said at a hearing late last year.