Goodbye Mr. Moon
Last week NASA announced that it expects to concede lunar exploration to its oldest rivals Russia and perhaps soon China. Well they didn’t actually say that. But it can certainly be implied quite easily.
NASA has released its expectations for its 2013 budget, which will be about $59 million smaller than the current fiscal year. The proposed FY 2013 budget, which runs from October 2012-September 2013, will be NASA’s lowest level of funding in four years and will leave the agency rather flat-looking in 2013. While the proposed budget totals at $17.7 billion, a large amount of funds are likely to be shifted to suit the Obama administrations desires. Programs such as research for human spaceflight and commercial spaceflight are getting a 22% bump over the 2012 budget while only $1.5 billion will be allocated to the planetary sciences budget, which represents a 15% decrease from 2012. Planetary sciences is the mastermind behind planning for robotic missions to Mars such as the coveted sample-return mission to search for advance the search for signs of life on the red planet.
Funding for the next-gen manned spaceflight vehicles, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, is due to receive $2.9 billion, 3% less than 2012. The Obama administration has expressed its desire for NASA to devote itself to research for landing astronauts on an asteroid and eventually Mars. While this is quite a lofty and admirable goal it completely leaves our closest neighbor out of the equation…the Moon.
The entire government seemingly doesn’t care that 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the last manned moon mission. In fact, no human has left low-earth orbit since the Apollo 17 mission on December 7th, 1972. The furthest distance from Earth traveled by humans is still the Apollo 13 flight that took the craft to the lunar far side in an effort to save the ship and the crew after the crippling explosion on the service module. Since the first lunar landing in 1969 humans have only spent a mere couple of days in total elapsed time exploring the surface of the moon. All the moon landings have been American in case you work for the government and have forgotten.
With the Obama administration’s direction of the budget for 2013, it seems that the moon will play little or no part in the goals of the agency. Ever since the cancellation of the Constellation program in Obama’s first year manned lunar exploration has been on the back burner. Instead we are focusing on sending humans deeper into space than ever before, to Mars and beyond. While that’s not a bad thing it seems strange that we would so easily neglect our closest neighbor in space. Despite its proximity to our home we know so little about the moon. I find it sad that we’re overlooking the moon in favor of landing on an asteroid. Last September famous moon-lander Neil Armstrong and three other space experts including Apollo 17 moon lander Eugene Cernan told Congress that they were embarrassing the United States by cutting funding of lunar missions. I would have to agree. America once held an inspiring dominance on spaceflight and lunar capability but now that dominance is all but lost. We won the space race, we completed the challenge of President Kennedy to land a man on the moon and return him safely. Now we’ve completely forgot about what that feels like. In my lifetime I’ve never seen a human stand of the surface of another world, and I’m not likely to for at least another 13 years.