In a speech at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago that featured a bland defense of the Obama space policy and a confrontation with a PETA activist, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden suggested a lunar orbit mission was planned for the early 2020s.
While a lunar orbit mission was mentioned in the various “flexible path” scenarios painted by the Augustine Committee, this was the first time that such a voyage was suggested would be a part of the ever evolving Obama space exploration plan. While a lunar orbit mission would be a good way to test the deep space capabilities of an Orion space craft, the announcement by Bolden seems to be in response to critics such as Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong that the absence of the Moon as a destination leaves a rather large gap in any beyond low Earth orbit plan.
If one were intending on returning to the Moon, a lunar orbit mission would be a good precursor, a way to shake out the Orion and test systems for future lunar landing missions. The mission of Apollo 8 served that purpose for the original moon landing.
There is only one problem. The Obama space plan does not contemplate Americans ever walking on the Moon again. President Obama blandly and infamously said so, noting that Buzz Aldrin had already been there.
In a way, throwing a sop of a lunar orbit mission in lieu of rather than in conjunction with a return to the Moon is the ultimate “look but don’t touch” adventure. American astronauts would soar about sixty kilometers or so above the lunar surface, with its store of water ice, platinum group metals, helium 3, and other materials that would be useful toward the goal of expanding humanity into space and, perhaps, at the same time addressing energy problems back on Earth. Those sixty kilometers may as well be sixty light years for all the prospect of Americans getting to the lunar surface and accessing the Moon’s resources.
Why has the Obama administration “chosen not to go to the Moon?” The short answer is that the current President, who is so free with money when it comes to socialized health care and corporate bailouts, is very stingy, more than most, when it comes to space exploration. Developing a lunar lander and lunar habitats, necessary for any long term stay on the lunar surface, costs money that has to be appropriated pretty much up front.
The Obama space plan, with a lunar orbit mission in the early 2020s, a visit to an asteroid in 2025, a Mars orbit mission in 2035, and so on does not require President Obama to spend much if any money while he is President. Decisions on funding would be left for Obama’s successors. In that way, the Obama space exploration plan is the ultimate Lucy with the Football scam, a promise up front with every prospect of it not being fulfilled in the future. It is rather insulting to people who think that maybe the United States has a future on the high frontier of space and Administrator Bolden should be ashamed of himself for proposing it.
Source: Is a circumlunar mission in NASA’s plans?, Jeff Foust, Space Politics, May 29th, 2010