A good summary of the positives and negatives of Obama's new vision for NASA

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reading a bit more through the reactions to Obama's speech laying out his plans for NASA, this post from Discover magazine is probably the best review (and mirrors mine). In short: Great plan, pity about the disparaging of the Moon.

But once again, I don't believe this to be important simply because 1) even two terms only brings us to 2018/9 and who knows what the next administration (Democratic or Republican) plans to do about Mars, which would still be almost two decades away for even a simple flyby mission, and 2) the Moon is such an easy target that even if the US does nothing other nations will start exploring it on their own, and it's doubtful the US will just sit around and watch them do it.

My prediction then is that preparations for the asteroid mission will go ahead as planned, but in about five-six years it will become obvious that the US might be better off helping explore the Moon considering the progress being made there.

Because this is what will be happening on the Moon in the next eight years:

Country Name Launch due
China Chang'e 2 October 2010
USA GRAIL September 6 2011
Russia Luna-Glob 1 2012
Russia Luna-Glob 2 2012
India Chandrayaan-2 2013
China Chang'e 3 2013
USA ILN Node 1 2013
USA ILN Node 2 2014

Plus these missions that may happen:

Country Name Launch due
Japan SELENE-2 2012 / 2013
UK MoonLITE 2014
MoonRaker 2014
Russia Luna-Grunt 1 2014
Luna-Grunt 2 2015
India Chandrayaan III 2015
(Private) Google Lunar X Prize Before 2015
USA ILN Node 3 2016
ILN Node 4 2017
China Chang'e 4 2017
Europe MoonNext 2015-2018

Not bad for a target the world doesn't even seem to be focusing all that hard on - a possible 20 missions over the next eight years.

Okay, now let's compare that to Mars.

Future missions Launch schedule Objective
Russia Phobos-Grunt 2012
Orbiter, lander, sample return
China Yinghuo-1 Orbiter
US MSL Curiosity 15 September 2011
Finland MetNet 2011-2019
Multi-lander network
Canada Northern Light 2012
Lander / rover
India Mars mission Between 2013-2015
US: ARES (martian rocketplane) Possibly by 2016
US Astrobiology Field Laboratory Possibly by 2016
ESA and US: ExoMars 2016
Orbiter, static lander
Two rovers

Just nine or ten missions, and this is for the planet that apparently is now the big goal. Also note no private participation (Google's big, but not big enough to put up the money needed to make going to Mars profitable), and also the Phobos-Grunt and MSL Curiosity missions. Why? Because they were supposed to have launched in 2009 but were delayed, and missing a launch window to Mars means waiting another 2.5 years. The Moon, on the other hand, orbits us and is always just three days away. Delay a mission for a week, two weeks, a month, that's fine. Or launch it a month early, that's fine too. Nowhere else in the Solar System offers a target like that.

Of course, when discussing plans like this there is always the caveat that we are discussing possible plans on a very limited budget, a budget that could be increased tenfold if we wanted to. Perhaps in the near future the discovery of another Earth-like planet near us, or an asteroid grazing us, or something else will prompt us to do so, and in that case there's no reason why we can't go to both the Moon and Mars.

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