It’s time to return to the moon, former NASA division chief says

Part one in an exclusive, five-part series exploring how America could once again put men on the moon.

Close your eyes. You see that shimmering, veiny darkness that most people see, right? Not me. I see the moon.

It’s the closest otherworldly body to us, making it the least challenging to explore of all the planets, moons and asteroids in our solar system.

It's an opportunity for humans to establish a permanent presence off Earth -- a moon base for scientists or a colony for all of humanity.

It could facilitate planet-wide cooperation among Earth’s nations in the pursuit of an answer to life’s biggest question: “Why are we here?”

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Why go back to the moon? I say, all of the above.

Special Series: Return to the moon

Monday: It’s time to return

It would be truly amazing, and a huge milestone in human history.

Tuesday: China’s moon rover a wake-up call

Why shouldn’t the U.S. continue to lead in space exploration?

Wednesday: Return to the moon in four years

What if I told you there was an easy way to get Americans back on the moon?

Thursday: How America can lead the world back

China can choose either to compete or join us.

Friday: Why now is the time for a moon base

The U.S. must lead the world in allowing humans to break the bonds that hold us to our Earth.

The prospect of establishing a permanent presence on the moon would be a game-changer for the human race. If we can make it there, we could start to understand what it really takes -- from both the design and human survival perspective -- to live on a foreign body.

The challenges will be difficult, yet inspiring. A permanent presence will enable us to accelerate our research into the origin of the moon, and eventually to build a launchpad for most of our scientific exploration of the solar system and galaxy. And beyond.

I spent my whole career working for NASA, and I had the privilege of leading the propulsion and power group at the Johnson Space Center for a short period.

But I chose not to continue.

The gap between the end of the space shuttle program and the next major U.S. space endeavor seemed as wide as the Grand Canyon. We shut down the program with only a third of the shuttles’ design capabilities being utilized. This move started a brain drain, causing many employees from both our space industrial complex and NASA to retire or find jobs elsewhere.

The initial decision to cancel the shuttle program was meant to create funding for our return to the moon. It was a noble goal, but then we made another decision: to terminate the nascent moon program and replace it with a mission to an asteroid.

An asteroid mission would be a good show, but it would do nothing to further exploration and expansion into our solar system.

Still, there is hope.

Even with the cancellation of the new moon program, NASA continued developing the Orion, a new lunar capsule, along with a heavy lift vehicle to carry it into space.

But there is no mission of substance currently planned for these assets.

In addition, there is a commercial vehicle initiative that is doing some good for the country, and increased competition between companies like SpaceX and United Launch Alliance will help enable lunar transportation infrastructure.

We can utilize these initiatives and quickly structure a program to go back to the moon -- this time for good. With recent events in the Ukraine and our dependency on the Russians for transportation to the space station, it’s even more important to re-ignite our space program.

I'll present a series of articles this week that will expand a vision for the moon, explaining the physics of what it takes to get there and the economics of whether the nations of Earth can afford a permanent presence. I'll touch on why the moon, not Mars, should be our next destination, and I’ll give my thoughts on how to rework the space industry and NASA after terminating the shuttle program.

Now try it again. Close your eyes and look at the sparkling darkness in your mind. Imagine looking at our moon and seeing our permanent base on another worldly body. It would be truly amazing, and a huge milestone in human history.

And we can do it.