As noted by Space News’ Klamper and Aviation Week’s Morring, both NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver and Office of Exploration Systems Associate Administrator Doug Cooke have stated that the Moon is not the next goal for NASA’s human space flight exploration program. Yet, the Moon’s relative closeness to Earth–it only takes roughly 3 – 4 days to reach the Moon from low-Earth orbit–makes the Moon attractive as we venture beyond our Earth for the first time in nearly 40 years. And recent scientific data of the LRO/LCROSS missions concerning large volumes of water available at the lunar poles only increase the Moon’s attraction as a suitable staging ground for missions beyond Earth orbit to near-Earth asteroids, Mars, and beyond.
None of the many things that make the Moon an attractive destination was lost on Congress when it wrote the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. Contained within the Act is language that strongly suggests that the next destination for NASA’s manned space program should be cis-lunar space, defined by Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act as “…the region of space from the Earth out to and including the region around the surface of the Moon“.
First, it is to necessary to examine the language in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that discusses destinations for the future of manned space flight. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act mentions asteroid missions in a material manner only in Title III, § 301, (a),
(1) The extension of the human presence from low-Earth orbit to other regions of space beyond low-Earth orbit will enable missions to the surface of the Moon and missions to deep space destinations such as near-Earth asteroids and Mars.
The above language clearly indicates that the path for human space flight is, in order, low-Earth orbit (LEO), the surface of the Moon and then, later, missions to near-Earth asteroids and Mars.
The Act then goes on to define that cis-lunar space is the next beyond LEO goal for human space flight in Title III, § 301, (b), (1) of the Act, which requires that the NASA Administrator report back to Congress within 120 days concerning,
(B) The efforts of NASA, including its approach and progress, in defining near-term, cis-lunar space human missions.
The Act then sets in Title III, § 302 the goals for developing a heavy-lift launch vehicle as follows,
(a) UNITED STATES POLICY.—It is the policy of the United States that NASA develop a Space Launch System as a follow-on to the Space Shuttle that can access cis-lunar space and the regions of space beyond low-Earth orbit in order to enable the United States to participate in global efforts to access and develop this increasingly strategic region.
And in defining the requirements for the multi-purpose crewed space vehicle (Orion), the NASA Authorization Act states in Title III, § 303, (b),
(2) The capability to conduct regular in-space operations, such as rendezvous, docking, and extra-vehicular activities, in conjunction with payloads delivered by the Space Launch System developed pursuant to section 302, or other vehicles, in preparation for missions beyond low-Earth orbit or servicing of assets described in section 804, or other assets in cis-lunar space.
To be true to full disclosure, the only other mention of asteroids in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act is in Title VIII, § 808 “NEAR-EARTH OBJECT SURVEY AND POLICY WITH RESPECT TO THREATS POSED”
(a) POLICY REAFFIRMATION.—Congress reaffirms the policy set forth in section 102(g) of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (42 U.S.C. 2451(g)) relating to surveying near-Earth asteroids and comets.
When examining Title III, § 301, (b), (1) in light of Title III, § 302, (a), Title III, § 303, (b), (2) and Title III, § 301, (a), (1) it becomes apparent that such de-emphasis by NASA of crewed missions to cis-lunar space, the Moon really, in favor of missions to asteroids, raise questions concerning compliance by NASA with the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.
Given the recent announcement by NASA of the Moon’s proliferate water-ice stores at its poles and a short transit period of mere days to travel to the Moon from low-Earth orbit, as compared with the 300 day or greater transit time cited by Associate Administrator Cooke to reach a desirable asteroid, one has to wonder why the Moon would not be the next goal for sustained human exploration? Not having to carry water all of the way out of Earth’s gravity means a huge savings in fuel. Using water from the Moon for exploration beyond also has a very large fuel savings since the Moon’s gravity is 1/6th that of Earth’s. The shorter transit time of a few days that it takes to get to the Moon from Earth, rather than 300 days to reach an asteroid, means less risk of catastrophic failure and loss of crew, a none-too small consideration as we move out from the relatives safety of low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972, or nearly 40 years. Certainly, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act seems to indicate that Congress intended for the Moon to be the next target for human space exploration.