The director general of the European Space Agency, a German civil engineer named Johann-Dietrich Woerner, has for more than a year engaged in a charm offensive to unite the primary spacefaring nations. The goal? Creating a “village” on the Moon. Woerner has pressed his case for the Moon even as his agency’s closest ally, NASA and President Obama, have pushed for a human “Journey to Mars.”
But time, and the inescapable challenge of sending humans to Mars, may be on Woerner’s side. President Obama, who famously dismissed the the Moon by saying “we’ve been there before,” leaves office in January. His choice for NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, will likely follow him out the door. And when a new president faces the question of a destination for NASA’s human spaceflight program, he or she may well favor Woerner’s vision.
The underlying tension
At present, NASA and ESA have a great relationship. They’ve made nice even as their respective heads, Bolden and Woerner, have worked toward cross purposes. Bolden has said NASA will do everything it can to support the desire of Europe, Japan and other international space agencies to land humans on the Moon, but that he must focus on Mars. NASA’s official position now is that its astronauts will not be distracted by Moon landings on the way to Mars. They’ll remain in orbit.
The Europeans, meanwhile, have cast the Moon as a “stepping stone” to Mars. At the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group in Columbia, Maryland on Tuesday, a principal architect of the Moon Village concept, French scientist Bernard Foing, said, “There is a synergy between the Moon and the Journey to Mars.” Foing, like Woerner, has pressed the case that neither NASA nor ESA is really ready to go to Mars, and the best place to get ready is on the surface of the Moon.
And therein lies an unspoken but nonetheless real tension. If NASA goes directly to Mars, keeping to its plan of building an orbital outpost around the Moon to test its deep space habitation capabilities, ESA probably doesn’t have the funding or capability to go to the lunar surface. And if NASA joins the Europeans in building lunar outposts, the ballyhoed “Journey to Mars” will be delayed by a decade or more, due to the resources required to build a real lunar program and Moon-specific hardware.
This is the decision the next President will face. Continue pushing ahead on an uncertain, but certainly very expensive, Journey to Mars that may very well fail? Or join with European and other international partners by returning to the Moon, which has a greater chance of success?
Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on much these days, but it seems that the space policy cliques within both parties would like to see a reappraisal of the Moon as a destination. The clearest public evidence yet of this came last week, during the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Ala.
One session focused exclusively on post-election space policy, and featured two well versed speakers. The first was Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, who has extensive experience with Republican executive governance. The second speaker, Ann Zulkosky, now works for Lockheed Martin, but spent most of 2007 to 2014 working on civil space policy under Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). She was a key architect of the NASA compromise to have the agency continue developing the Orion spacecraft, and build the Space Launch System rocket.
During the discussion, Pace said he did not take issue with the general direction of President Obama’s space policy, but raised concerns about the Mars plans. He noted that “more than one” international agency leader had told him they felt NASA’s approach excluded meaningful partnership because Mars lay beyond the capability of ESA and others. Pace said the next president should show leadership on this issue, but not the kind of leadership that NASA expressed in the 1960s, during the Apollo program.
“Today I would argue that leadership is very different than it was in the 1960s,” Pace said. “In the 1960s, very simplistically, it was all about what we could do by ourselves. Today, leadership is about what can you get other people to do with you, and leadership is about bringing other people along and going out together.”
Pace cited a “couple of large missing gaps” between NASA’s current programs in low-Earth orbit and actually landing humans on Mars, and said the next administration would have to address those. If that president wants to build an international consensus, Pace said, the Moon is the clear choice, at least as an interim step toward Mars. “We need to fill in that gap, and that gap needs to be filled in at the highest level by an adjustment of that policy to bring the Moon and international partnerships, and cooperation with the private sector, more clearly into that path,” he said.
The Democratic view
Pace’s Democratic counterpart, Zulkosky, largely agreed. She said the NASA’s human exploration programs were more or less on track, but could sustain a “tweak or two.” Like Pace, she said the next president could well feel the pull of Europe and the rest of the international community toward the Moon.
“Congress has spoken and repeated legislation with regard to the goal of Mars,” Zulkosky said. “But I think, again, that the steps to get there allow for some differences depending on your priorities. There’s been much discussion in the press and different forums about the international community, and their focus with a Moon return and things along those lines, and so I think as you move out toward Mars as the goal, who are you bringing with you? I think there’s a lot of conversation that can be had about the interim steps that the next administration could put in place that ultimately lead to that goal.”
According to two different sources, Zulkosky is among a handful of people informally advising the Clinton campaign. Another Clinton adviser, Neal Lane, has also made comments supportive of a lunar return before venturing to Mars.
Allez a la lune?
A number of people in the aerospace community have derided the “Moon Village” concept because it remains a fantasy if Europe, or Japan, try to go it alone. To make such a community a reality, Europe would need at minimum a fully committed Russia as a partner, but more likely it would require either the United States or China as a major stakeholder.
And China may perhaps be the true wildcard in this. The US Congress presently prohibits NASA from working directly with China, and that nation has been blocked from the International Space Station as a result. This has led to cooperation between China and Europe on space matters, and European astronauts have begun training to eventually visit a Chinese station in the mid-2020.
The next president of the United States will have to confront a complicated set of geopolitics. In terms of space policy, the continuation of a NASA Journey to Mars might ultimately leave Europe to move ahead with China on lunar activities. The alternative would be embracing a Moon Village-like concept, and along with Europe bringing western values to the “eighth continent” of Earth—the Moon. It may not prove such a difficult choice after all.
Listing image by ESA