Apollo mission photograph from the surface of the MoonOn Tuesday this last week, Ron Howard’s excellent film Apollo 13 was released on Blu-ray disc. It was also the 40th anniversary of the accident on that flight. Watching the movie this week I recalled during the scene of the mission launch the same thing I noted 15 years ago, that the the majestic and spectacular launch of a Saturn V is unlike anything we are currently capable of. We cannot go to the moon. We don’t have heavy lift capability anything like what the Saturn V could do. At the end of the movie is a voiceover where Tom Hanks, in the character of Jim Lovell, wonders when we will go back. I wonder that, too. It is a question still unanswered.

It is in this context that I hear the proposals made by President Obama for the future of NASA. The proposals are a mixed bag, including some great news and a little bit of “lunacy,” so to speak.

The Good

The best of the news is that the budget of NASA will be expanded by $6 billion over the next five years. This is welcome news. NASA has seen decreasing budgets over the last several years, and it’s good to see an increased investment in the agency, especially in its science and technological development budgets. I would wish for a greater sum, but $6 billion is nothing to sneeze at to be sure.

Also in the excellent news category is the commitment to developing a new heavy-lift launch vehicle in lieu of the cancellation of the delayed, over-budget, and troubled Constellation program. The President’s claim is that the new launch vehicle should actually be ready to fly sooner than what was expected from the cancelled Constellation program.

Lost Moon

But the bad news is that we’ve lost the moon. The President doesn’t want a return to the moon to be a goal. We’ve already been there. Instead we should visit some asteroids and plan to send humans to orbit Mars and return. Orbit Mars? Well, maybe we might land after that. But the Apollo missions never had a goal of putting men in lunar orbit. Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 were missions that went into lunar orbit, not as a program goal but as a stepping stone toward the landing of Apollo 11. If we really want to explore Mars, we need to land. If we really want to do science supported by a human presence at Mars, we need to land. It seems likely that any science that can be done by humans in Martian orbit, could be done with less risk and cost by using robotic missions. But there can be real enhancements to surface exploration and science with a human crew.

But if we are go to to Mars, we need to test our new and renewed capabilities. We need to learn and relearn things from our Apollo days. Further lunar exploration would be a great way to expand our capabilities and perfect our equipment and procedures. There is much we could learn in preparation for a Martian flight in going to the Moon.

Why not go to the Moon? I went to Rome 17 years ago, does that mean that I really shouldn’t consider going there again? A new lunar landing program would not just be about going for a long drive in space or simply about preparing for trips to Mars. We certainly did not exhaust all the science we can do during the Apollo missions. But there is so much more that we could do on the Moon than focus on the Moon itself. I’d be particularly keen on the establishment of a remote astronomical observatory on the far side. Without the turbulence and scattering effects of an atmosphere, the seeing would be far superior than earthbound instruments. The Moon would also act as an effective shield from radio and other electromagnetic noise from human transmissions. ¬†An observatory based on the lunar surface would escape the significant risk posed by orbital space junk. Additionally, larger instruments or arrays could possibly be built on the lunar surface than could be lifted into Earth orbit. Of course, such a lunar observatory would not be without its difficulties to be overcome, but its potential would be significant.

Should we go to Mars? Yes. But first we should be going back to the Moon to prove and improve our technology. We should also go back to the Moon in the interests of the science that could be done and to better understand our universe. In any case, the purpose of a trip to the Moon, Mars, or asteroids (which is a worthy choice, by the way) needs to be borne not simply out of a desire to go for the sake of going, but because of the science and exploration that can be done there, and which can be enhanced by the real-time exploration and interaction of human beings.

The Human Quality

That last point is also important. The robotic missions to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and other bodies have and will certainly continue to be successes. We should certainly not stop doing them. It often makes more sense to send less expensive robotic missions than to mount the difficult, dangerous, and expensive missions needed for human exploration. But they also have drawbacks. While occasionally we can put instruments to clever use beyond their intended design, the robotic missions can do only those things for which they are designed. New or interesting phenomena may require another mission to investigate. A human mission may also have limits because of the equipment available, but there is a greater opportunity to take advantage of the unexpected observation, or even to get that unexpected observation.

Beyond that, there is the human experience of exploration. Beyond data and procedure, there is the qualitative observation of the world that is also valuable. Human imagination and experience are important, even from the perspective of scientific inquiry.

I applaud the continued commitment to human space exploration and to the scientific programs of NASA. Skipping the Moon, however, is a mistake. It’s a necessary step, on its own and toward making trips to Mars a success. To have lost the Moon again is a sad and unfortunate choice. It lacks logic and ignores the science that could be done there. Further, the proposals trade the Moon for a lengthy and expensive trip to Mars for its own sake, even if it might, maybe, lead to something more.