Wednesday, October 14, 2009
The Augustine Commission is not yet finished taking centre stage on the debate on how best to proceed with manned exploration, as the full report is not yet due until mid-October, so just a few days from now. The original date for the report was sometime in September but it's a very good thing that the report was delayed a bit as September was when the crucial announcement of the discovery of water on the Moon was made, and that is crucial in setting up a viable long-term colony there.
Articles on the commission can be seen here and here. The general consensus is that Mars is simply not possible now; devoting a ton of resources to getting there could possibly work out somehow, maybe, but there simply is no reason to go for a destination like that when the Moon is that much closer and very easy by comparison. The only question up in the air right now is whether to go directly to the Moon or whether to go with a manned asteroid mission or a mission to a Lagrange Point first instead. Before September I would have said to go with a mission to a near-Earth asteroid but with the discovery of water and the upcoming discovery of Earth-like planets (first should be either this year or early 2010) a manned asteroid mission might not have much to do with advancing our goals there - using the water on the Moon, and using it as our first long-term settlement in order to get to another Earth-like planet some day.
Also, other nations have already sent and are planning to send more probes to the Moon, so this really already is an international venture. No sense in NASA doing something else all by itself.
That image on the right, by the way, comes from here - it's the Earth and the Moon on the top right and Jupiter on the bottom, taken from Mars.
One last thought: yesterday's post on Easter Island applies to us a bit as well. The quote from Thor Heyerdahl's book on Easter Island mentions that due to their isolation people living there knew more about the stars in the sky than other parts of the Earth - for them the world was their island, a large ocean, a few other islands extremely far away, and all the stars in the sky. That's kind of the same as our position in our solar system - near us is just the Moon, plus a few planets, and everything else is just stars. Compare that to a theoretical civilization on a moon like Europa around Jupiter. The Moon is the only near destination to us, but a civilization on Europa would have a total of 62 (at least) potential destinations within a few days' to weeks journey of their home planet/moon. Jupiter would be the largest object in the sky, the Sun would be there too of course, and all the other nearby moons. The stars compared to that would be interesting but not too relevant background noise.
Then compare that to a moon around a similar planet in the Alpha Centauri system. With two large stars nearby that would be an even busier situation. Earth probably looks quite lonely compared to that.