Yesterday, President Obama gave an address in Florida regarding the recent policy changes that his administration is trying to enact with regard to NASA. If you’re interested in watching, here’s the video:
The main points of interest for those who have been paying attention to the Obama administration’s policy change on NASA was the announcement that the administration would seek to restore funding for the Orion crew capsule, making it the only surviving project from the Constellation program, that a design for a next-generation heavy lift rocket would be finalized by 2015, that NASA would receive increased funding over the course of the coming years, and that our manned program would be aiming at an Asteroid landing in the ‘20s and a Mars in the ‘30s with no Moon program planned.
That last bit of course ruffles some feathers, but it seems that some recent calculations from NASA may vindicate that decision. Some of the encouraging bits of data to come from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter as well as the LCROSS mission were that polar lunar craters harbored water that could be harvested by astronauts that were settling on the moon for a prolonged stay.
But some of the same processes that have allowed water to stay at the bottom of those craters make accessing it very difficult. For one thing, these craters, having been sheltered from the Sun for eons, are far colder than the coldest natural areas on Earth. To add insult to injury, the soil in the craters may be electrified by the solar wind, and without grounding that is present on Earth, it may be nearly impossible to operate in them. Here’s the video accompanying the article
The polar regions of the moon were the the prime targets for the placement long-term bases because of their relatively constant temperature, the presence of water in the bottom of craters and the “peaks of eternal sunlight”, which would allow for a constant stream of solar power and light for plants. However, if these calculations are accurate, living at the lunar poles may be a lot less manageable than previously thought.
Of course, added difficulty doesn’t necessarily mean that we should surrender hopes to land more humans on the Moon, but I think that it is useful to have some perspective on what the point of manned exploration of space. My personal view is that transportation of humans to the Moon and beyond should be focused primarily on settlement.
The Apollo landings were an inspiring spectacle and though I don’t regret them, that is largely what they remain to this day. They did not establish any human foothold on our orbiting neighbor and indeed, it’s been almost 40 years since the last human left the moon’s surface.
Human space exploration has to either sustain itself or represent a step toward a grander goal and as of now, I’m not sure whether such exploration on the Moon would justify the resources devoted to it. I do, however, look forward to the exploration and settlement of Mars that may be a possibility in a few decades.