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NASA gets cold feet on Moon base plan

Lunar outpost apparently off the agenda

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NASA is dithering about whether its future plans should include a Moon base or focus on missions further out into the solar system, New Scientist reports.

Speaking yesterday, the agency's acting administrator, Chris Scolese, suggested "a shift in the agency's direction", from his predecessor Mike Griffin's commitment to a lunar outpost as part of a slated 2020 manned return to the Moon.

However, Scolese told the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies of the House Committee on Appropriations: "We were looking at an outpost on the Moon, as the basis for that [2020] estimate and that one is being revisited.

"It will probably be less than an outpost on the Moon, but where it fits between sorties, single trips, to the Moon to various parts and an outpost is really going to be dependent on the studies that we're going to be doing."

These "studies" seem to involve largely bypassing the Moon and focusing instead on more ambitious goals. Sciolese elaborated: "Recall [that] the Vision [for Space Exploration] was not just to go to the Moon as it was in Apollo, it was to utilise space to go on to Mars and to go to other places.

"We've demonstrated over the last several years that with multiple flights we can build a very complex system reliably - the space station - involving multiple nations... and we'll need something like that if we're going to go to Mars."

He further teased: "So what I would like to see from NASA over time is an architecture that... will give us flexibility for taking humans beyond low-Earth orbit and allowing us to have options for what we can do at the Moon as well as other destinations... [like] Mars or an asteroid… so that there are options on what we do in 2020."

What NASA's plans finally include is in part dependent on the as-yet-undecided 2010 budget - due to be released as a detailed proposal this month.

Congressman Alan Mollohan, the subcommittee's chair, was evidently unimpressed with NASA's vague "flexibility" concept, and demanded: "Does the 2010 budget request impact in any way our target - is this so complicated - our target of getting to the moon by 2020? Is there any consideration being given within the organisation to not attempting to meet the 2020 Moon [return]… is there any reconsideration of going there? What is going on here?"

Doug Cooke, NASA's associate administrator for exploration systems, replied: "The direction that we have is to continue to pursue the 2020 date." He did, however, note that the agency was "still assessing how the 2010 budget might affect that." ®

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