NASA's just-unveiled Moon exploration plan looks doomed to fail unless the agency makes up its mind what its real priorities are.

Long ago, NASA asked us to dream that anything was possible. The agency asked us to believe that skill, courage and luck could overcome any obstacle, conquer any doubt. The agency of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo has now unveiled a lunar exploration plan that again seeks to defy our disbelief. Unfor­tunately, this time the limits NASA seeks to stretch are not those of physics, but of economics. We are asked to accept the conceit of a plan making open promises on a fixed budget.

Returning to the Moon by 2018 and keeping the Space Shuttle flying through 2010 are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts, but they have to be if NASA’s current budget and planning schedules are to be taken at face value. It seems clear that either the Moon will have to wait for several years – if not indefinitely – or the Shuttle fleet will have to be deactivated.

The Shuttle’s breakthrough return to flight in June proved to be a mirage, exposing thermal protection deficiencies that have forced the agency to face a still unspecified multi-billion-dollar redesign and more expenses due to schedule delays. Damage to the Shuttle’s production facilities on the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina has dealt another blow, moving back the next return to flight mission by almost a year to the end of 2006.

The agency cannot seek relief the usual way by simply asking for more money. Not even NASA’s staunchest supporters in Congress think that’s a good idea. The White House, more importantly, won’t hear of it. Therefore, costs rising in one programme must be paid for from other accounts. NASA’s devotion to the Shuttle no doubt means its Moon programme will be the primary victim.

NASA’s Shuttle commitment, reiterated last week by administrator Michael Griffin after so many problems since the Columbia disaster in 2002, invites scepticism given the presence of obvious alternatives. If NASA’s objective is to fulfil its obligations to the International Space Station (ISS), the Shuttle doesn’t have to be the only solution. Europe is likely to have a cargo spacecraft – the automated transfer vehicle – operational next year. Japan will have a similar capability a couple years later. Both could ferry cargo and small components to the ISS, and probably can do the job at least as fast as the chronically grounded Shuttle fleet. What is at risk is the launch of those ISS components that are too big to be carried by any vehicle other than the Shuttle.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Soyuz capsule remains available for manned missions to the ISS. The US Senate acted last week to keep that option alive, exempting NASA-funded Soyuz flights to the ISS from laws banning purchases of Russian space technology by the US government. Human access to the ISS does not depend on the Shuttle. Commercial space entrepreneurs may offer even another alternative. A new venture called Transformational Space, or t/Space, is proposing to have a manned space capsule and air-launch system operational by 2010 – assuming NASA can spare about $500 million.

All this shows merely that the Shuttle is not a vital component for NASA’s access to space. Leaving aside the embarrassment of having to rely on foreign sources to meet its promises, NASA’s motivation to sustain the Shuttle appears not practical but political. More than 50,000 white collar jobs rely on the Space Shuttle. Thousands are located along the Gulf Coast decimated by Katrina. Griffin reminded reporters last week that the region’s recovery wouldn’t be helped if a major source of employment vanished overnight.

Perhaps just as well. Retiring the Space Shuttle is a desperate act, justified only if it supported a truly worthwhile agenda. The Moon exploration plan unveiled last week falls short of that, failing to arouse the imagination or even to define a noble purpose beyond preserving jobs for whatever remains of the Shuttle workforce, not least by relying heavily on Shuttle-derived components.

Retracing the footsteps of Apollo four decades later surely will present serious technical challenges, but there is little new in the Moon expedition plan. The basic elements of the architecture are all familiar, and the spacecraft will even look the same, albeit about 50% larger. There is also little to inspire hope that NASA won’t repeat Apollo’s true flaw: lunar travel for its own sake is a scientific extravagance that inspires briefly, then quickly loses support. NASA’s plan would relive Apollo for a new generation, but does nothing to avoid repeating Apollo’s premature death.

see spaceflight p25

Source: Flight International