A late start on the way back to the Moon

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Where I work, as at any daily, weekly, or monthly periodical, deadlines rule. We have a simple rule: Don't break deadlines.

At NASA, deadlines rule, too. For some missions, like robotic explorations of the solar system, the most important deadline is sending a ship into space when the alignment of the planets is favorable. Missing this "launch window" could mean the mission doesn't happen at all.

In the manned space program, deadlines are softer. That's because NASA uses a pay-as-you-go system to support long-term programs, such as the return to the Moon. What NASA is able to spend depends on what Congress ultimately decides to appropriate — or not appropriate — each fiscal year.

Because of a current funding shortfall, the return-to-the-Moon schedule is slipping. The new space transportation system — the Orion crew capsule launched on an Ares I rocket — won't be ready for manned flight until at least March 2015. That means the United States will have to hitchhike on Russian rockets to the International Space Station (ISS) until Ares/Orion are ready.

I'm not worried about the hitchhiking part. The Russians are brilliant at that — their Soyuz launch system is reliable and safe — and would be happy to collect the hundreds of millions of dollars in fares to taxi us to orbit. And the space-tourism industry will, no doubt, clamor for the marketing coup of taking American astronauts to the ISS.

The biggest loser, in the end, might be the return-to-the-Moon mission, projected to cost $122 billion through 2018, according to the General Accounting Office. As the date when American boots hit the lunar dust again drifts farther into the future, will public interest — and the funding that follows it — also begin to fade?

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