The road to Mars leads right past the moon. So why isn't a return trip on the agenda?
That's what Buzz Aldrin wants to know.
President Obama recently green-lighted a brand new mission and a new budget for NASA, including a grand long-term goal: a manned mission to Mars. But Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, says the moon is much more essential to American space efforts.
In its haste to make new policy, Aldrin and other experts say, NASA is overlooking a critical component of space travel: a permanent, manned base on the moon that would make reaching Mars a much easier task.
Establishing a lunar base could provide a safe source of water and a site for fuel depots, which would reduce the cost of transporting fuel from Earth for an eventual Mars mission, Aldrin told Fox News.com.
He said returning to the moon 38 years later should be at the heart of NASA's plans, and he said he fears domestic politics may be playing with our goals for space.
"In the bigger picture, there seems to be a lot of contention as we approach the midterm elections," Aldrin said. "Inside the administration, there are a lot of people who are focused on showing the public how much progress has been made since the election of 2008. That’s generated a lot of attention internally. And that’s resulted in a lot of horse-trading about the goals for NASA."
Greg Allison, executive vice president of the National Space Society and a contractor for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center, agrees with the veteran astronaut about the crucial importance of the moon.
"Going to Mars requires an infrastructure in space," he told FoxNews.com. "That’s where a moon base would come in."
On Monday, Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which charts the space agency's trajectory and will shape the nation’s science, aerospace and information technology development for decades to come. The moon does not factor into the new plan.
"I just have to say pretty bluntly -- we've been there before," Obama told reporters in April when critics first argued that the moon should not be sidelined. "There's a lot more space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do," he said.
"We have been given a new path in space that will enable our country to develop greater capabilities," NASA administrator Charles Bolden told reporters.
But Aldrin disagrees. Citing key holes in NASA's new plan, he and other space gurus think a minor mid-course correction in strategy could lead to a "mission accomplished" sign when it comes to revamping NASA. For example, the new budget was "not clear" on how the rollout for a mission to Mars would happen, Aldrin told FoxNews.com.
Aldrin believes NASA should move in stages toward a manned mission to Mars, by building outer space fuel stations and developing the moon. He said NASA has already spent hundreds of millions researching the projects, and their investment should be utilized -- as recommended by Norm Augustine, former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board and chairman of the Review of the U.S. Space Flight Plans Committee.
What's more, Aldrin said, the American government should not simply shrug off the considerable experience we have with lunar travel. "The U.S. has the most experience in the world, of any nation, in dealing with the moon," he told FoxNews.com. "It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that flexibility is needed here."
Some experts support the new path, including Jeffrey Manber, who oversaw commercial space policy for the Reagan administration and is now managing director of space research technology developer NanoRacks. He says the moon is an old goal -- and Mars is the future.
"America has been to the moon six times. A seventh voyage would neither inspire the next generation nor require massive investments in new technology," Manber told FoxNews.com. "If we remove our partisan blinders, it's clear that it is time for NASA and our space program to behave like other, commercial programs: from the bottom-up, unleashing the creativity of the private sector."
But others remain critical of the effort. Ray Nackoney, a professor of astrophysics at Loyola University in Chicago, said he simply cannot support the idea of a manned mission to Mars.
"To get to Mars with current technology, the trip will not take three days, as when going to the moon, but over eight months," Nackoney told FoxNews.com. "And eight months to get back. The astronauts will spend more than a year on Mars to get the correct alignment of the planets to make the most efficient trip back. Will we really do this? I doubt it will occur in my lifetime."
Aldrin, who is launching a new think tank called U.S.S. Enterprise -- which stands for unified, strategic, space enterprise -- said NASA should take advantage of the natural cycle of the planets for the most efficient travel across the solar system. "A unified space exploration policy is what is needed for the U.S.," he said.
But David Weaver, a spokesman for NASA, said that there is wide support in private industry and in the government for Obama's strategy.
"There are statements supporting the president’s new vision for NASA from Norm Augustine, Charles Bolden and John Holdren," Weaver said in an interview. He said that the new legislation supports the President’s ambitious plan for NASA to pioneer new frontiers of innovation and discovery. Why Mars, and not the moon? "That should help answer your question," he said.
Aldrin doesn’t blame Obama for where NASA and the U.S. are today in terms of space policy. The famed astronaut and engineer notes there have been a "series of miscues," going all the way back to the Nixon administration, that have interfered with NASA moving forward with an innovative agenda.
"For decades, we’ve been misdefining our transitional space programs," Aldrin said. "A vision like in the early days of the space race showing the logical progression from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo is what is needed today to show why we need to go to Mars -- and how we will get there."
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