Time Magazine writes in a online special report about NASA’s current “Constellation Program,” a plan to send astronauts back to the Moon in preparation for a Mars mission in 2020. One of NASA’s first steps will be to launch the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in Fall 2008, a craft that will be able to make detailed, wide-ranging surveys of the lunar surface. I wonder how long it will take Google Moon to get hold of these surveys. I admit, the LRO piece of this mission seems very cool, but I still have serious doubts about the broader mission as I have written in an earlier post. The Time report doesn’t talk much about the utility of the mission, or its possible negative impact on space science, but it does talk about the daunting budgetary hurdles NASA faces for the next fifteen years:
It’s unlikely, then, that any future President will make manned lunar exploration a real priority. Which means inadequate funding for NASA and a tough bind for the agency’s administrator, Michael Griffin. “If the President says you’re going to the moon with this amount of money,” says [Astronaut Alan] Bean, now 76 and an artist in Houston, “you’d better say yes, because if you don’t you aren’t going to have a job anymore.” In effect, he says, the space agency must go through the motions of building hardware until the money runs out, knowing it won’t be enough to make it to the moon.
So here’s the question: when the funding does fall short on the Constellation Program at some point over the next decade, what’s Plan B? What will we plan to do with these jacked-up Ares rockets, Orion crew exploration vehicle, etc? And in the interim, how many science projects will be the “fat” that gets trimmed in order to put humans on Mars? Will the expense justify the money spent to send them there? Spirit and Opportunity seem to be doing a terrific job on Mars as we speak, and they don’t require food, water, back pay, or golf clubs.