Americans from Buzz Aldrin to president Barack Obama say it’s a waste of time to put men back on the moon -- so why are foreign countries so eager to take that one small step?
While several private American companies are planning robotic missions to the moon, China launched a man-sized robotic scout to the moon on Monday. The country’s recent manned missions and efforts to build a new space base suggest a future manned mission to the moon, though why is an open question. Speculation has run from the desire to build a military missile base -- a Death Star of sorts -- to national pride to simple economics.
The answer may be far simpler: The moon is “easy” to get to.
“If you’re still trying to test out your space legs, it’s a great place to do it,” said one NASA engineer familiar with the agency’s plans. NASA’s current space agenda includes a highly challenging project to tow an asteroid back to Earth, as well as transporting men to Mars within two decades -- projects of vast technical complexity compared with the moon landings America ended four decades ago.
'NASA is not going to the moon with a human as a primary project probably in my lifetime.'
- NASA administrator Charles Bolden
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“Mars and the asteroid mission is just clearly not something most of them can even fathom taking a major role in, whereas going to the moon is something that they can do, as the Chinese have proven,” he said.
Others, including a chorus of ex-astronauts and policy experts, argue that NASA is making a mistake by ignoring the moon, which still fascinates the Earthbound. Only 12 men have ever set foot on the moon, Americans all of them, the last one 41 years ago.
Dennis Wingo, a space entrepreneur and author of the book “MoonRush,” thinks the Chinese mission is about supporting the world’s exploding population.
“China is spending billions on resource acquisition in Africa, South America and other places around the world,” he told FoxNews.com. “If you look at the design of their system for this mission, it is very much a mineral prospector as much as a science mission.”
Yet America will not return to the moon, NASA administrator Charlie Bolden makes clear.
“NASA is not going to the moon with a human as a primary project probably in my lifetime,” Bolden said at an April panel in Washington. Bolden acknowledged the worldwide interest in putting men back on the moon -- and said he was willing to help out any other nation in their efforts.
“They all have dreams of putting humans on the Moon,” he said. “I have told every head of agency of every partner agency that if you assume the lead in a human lunar mission, NASA will be a part of that.”
NASA echoed that sentiment today, telling FoxNews.com that it is working with international partners to plan missions to the moon and elsewhere.
"The Global Exploration Roadmap we recently released is a clear signal that the global community is committed to working together on a unified deep-space exploration strategic plan, with robotic and human missions to destinations that include near-Earth asteroids, the moon and Mars," NASA's David Weaver said.
That’s fine with some, including legendary moonwalker Buzz Armstrong himself.
"Do not put NASA astronauts on the moon. They have other places to go," Aldrin said in his book, "Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration.” Aldrin argues that NASA should strive to put humans on Mars instead. But other experts call America’s agenda a profound oversight.
“Our political system made a possibly fatal mistake in 1968 [by] shifting the entire focus of the American government from one of forward looking future-supporting projects such as the interstate highway system, advanced aerospace, and space development,” Wingo said. “We are reaping the fruits of that mistake today.”
The NASA engineer described the situation as complicated, partly due to politics.
“George Bush was going to the moon, and when the new administration came in they were looking for something to do,” he told FoxNews.com.
It’s clear that the far more scientifically challenging mission to an asteroid isn’t resonating, said Albert Carnesale, former chancellor of UCLA and chair of a recently completed National Academies Committees on NASA’s Strategic Direction.
“The asteroid mission clearly had not been accepted either within or without the NASA community as a next step,” Carnesale told FoxNews.com.
It may be time to reconsider our missions, some suggest, especially if you could find innovative ways to get to the moon. And several U.S. companies have been working on just that. The latest is Moon Express, which will unveil the MX-1 spacecraft at the Autodesk University show in Las Vegas Thursday evening -- the micro-spacecraft that will in 2015 mark the first U.S. soft landing on the moon since the days of the Apollo program.
The craft looks for all the world like two stacked donuts wearing an ice cream cone, and the tiny vehicle clearly isn’t big enough for a human being. It's just big enough to scoop up some rocks and dirt and return to Earth. Moon Express plans to mine our satellite, and NASA endorses that idea.
"NASA ... supports commercial exploration of the moon," Weaver said. "We have solicited ideas from industry to help stimulate commercial robotic lunar transportation services as the first step in assessing interest for public-private partnerships to jointly develop a robotic lander that could demonstrate technologies and enable research opportunities for government and commercial customers on the moon."
Bigelow Aerospace’s CEO recently said he wanted to sell property on the moon, a Japanese firm suggested a solar panel ring around the moon, and China’s Chang’e 3 lander -- which should touch down on the moon in mid-December -- will be the first controlled landing since the Soviet Union’s Luna-24 mission in 1976.
China’s mission could serve as a wake-up call to the world, Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said.
“We’re kind of waiting to see if it’s the Sputnik of our generation,” he told FoxNews.com.
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.