- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Sending astronauts back to the moon would further scientific research and give NASA the clear goal that critics contend has been missing for years, say advocates of a Bush administration plan to return to Earth’s satellite.

But questions remain about the cost of traveling to the moon, and a decision to return there would rekindle a long-standing debate about the scientific value of human spaceflight, especially in light of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster that killed seven astronauts in February.

“The moon has scientific value, utilitarian value and inspirational value,” said Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration remains silent about plans to aim again for the moon. President Bush is expected to outline his vision for the space agency Wednesday, the centennial of the first powered flight by the Wright brothers. Astronauts haven’t been to the moon in 31 years. The space agency made six lunar landings during the Apollo program between 1969 and 1972.

“To me, the basic reason to go to the moon is that it’s time to go somewhere,” said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a member of the board investigating the Columbia accident.

In August, Mr. Logsdon and the 13-member investigation board wrote in its report on the Columbia disaster that NASA has drifted for much of the past three decades because it has not developed clear long-term goals or established a compelling mission requiring a human presence in space.

Placing the moon back on the celestial itinerary could give the agency a sense of purpose and rally public support. The decision could also help scientific research.

But while a mission to the moon could reinvigorate NASA, grounded since the Columbia disintegrated Feb. 1, the discussion will lead to a debate about the appropriate balance between human space exploration and the use of robotics to explore space.

NASA plans to spend an estimated $6.1 billion in the current fiscal year on human spaceflight.

Two Mars rovers that are scheduled to land on that planet next month will search for evidence of water in a program that will cost less than $1 billion.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, New York Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee, has said since the Columbia disintegrated over Texas that Congress isn’t prepared to give NASA a blank check. He also has questioned whether human exploration is the best way to improve our understanding of the universe.

But Mr. Spudis said, “The moon is a great place to do astronomy.”

An observatory on the moon would advance astronomical research. The far side of the moon is shielded from radio interference from Earth, making telescopic examination of the universe even more efficient.

Moreover, scientists know little about the moon’s origin or interior. Much of the scientific community’s understanding of the moon was derived from samples retrieved during the Apollo program.

“I can see a lot of interesting questions that can be addressed with scientific experiments that are related to larger issues of formation of the solar system,” said Wendell Mendell, manager of NASA’s Office for Human Space Exploration at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The president could propose establishing a long-term presence on the moon, providing a scientific outpost to help prepare for reaching an even more ambitious goal: Mars.

“In my view, the proper sequence is to go to the moon and develop the capabilities to go to Mars,” Mr. Mendell said.

The poles of the moon contain significant amounts of hydrogen, in the form of “water ice,” that can be used to produce rocket propellant, Mr. Spudis said. That fuel would help astronauts reach Mars.

“If you can mine the moon for rocket fuel, you can go a lot of places,” Mr. Spudis said.

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