This year marks NASA's 50th anniversary, and the space agency is developing and testing vehicles, spacesuits and dwellings that will be able to stand up to the moon's harsh conditions, hoping to meet President Bush's goal of sending humans back to the moon by 2020 and eventually on to Mars. We asked experts in science and space policy to discuss their views on manned space missions.
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Director of Space Policy Institute, George Washington University
John Logsdon will join the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum this fall.
The main goal is sending people beyond earth's orbit starting with the moon, eventually getting to Mars, and perhaps beyond. The moon is the first step. We don't know how to go to Mars yet. The moon is a destination of value in its own right, because there is lots we can do there that will help us learn how to go to Mars.
This is not primarily about science, and therefore not primarily about the discovery of fundamental new knowledge. It is to test the belief that humans are destined to live in other places in addition to earth. In order to do that, they have to be able to live off the land and do something worthwhile. Exploration lets us find out whether both of these are possible.
We can learn whether there are valuable resources that can extend the sphere of earth's economic activity out into the solar system. We want to be doing lots of things between the earth and the moon that will require rocket fuel. It may be cheaper and easier to extract the oxygen needed for rocket propulsion from the lunar soil than it is to lift it away from the earth's gravity.
Another idea is the moon's surface is full of an isotope of helium called helium-3, which at some point in the future can be the ideal fuel of a fusion reactor cycle and provide almost unlimited non-fossil fuel and non-radioactive fuel to produce energy on earth. We know it's there. The question is, could it be extracted in large enough quantities, and at what point in the future will we develop a fusion reactor to use it? There are also people who believe we can capture the sun's energy and convert it into laser or microwave energy and beam it down to earth. You can build a lot of that system using lunar material. All of this is verging on a centuries-long perspective of why we do this. It's not for some immediate gratification. It's not to go and plant a flag and come back.
I am a supporter of the notion that there is value to human exploration. I believe that 50 years from now there will be permanently occupied outposts on the moon. Whether they are Antarctica-like scientific stations or a thriving industrial community remains to be seen. In 50 years I think we will have made our initial forays to Mars and have answered the question of whether life ever existed on that planet.