Late Sunday the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans (aka the Augustine committee) issued a call for comments for a document called “Exploration Beyond LEO: Process and Progress”. (I had separately heard about this a little earlier Sunday from an alert reader.) The short document—just over two pages—is key because it hints at what the committee, or at least the subcommittee of the overall committee looking at exploration beyond LEO, is considering right now. The document states that the committee is looking at five scenarios, and has asked NASA to document the current program as another scenario. The key paragraph:
The first subcommittee-defined scenario, Lunar Base, is a close derivative of the current program, with some simplifications. Lunar Global is a scenario in which a base or outpost is not assembled on the Moon, but instead the Moon is explored by a coordinated series of extended duration human sorties and robotic exploration. In both these cases, implications for subsequent Mars exploration will be considered. Moon to Mars, or more completely Moon on the way to Mars, is a scenario in which the primary objective is Mars exploration, and all systems are designed for Mars. Only when it is beneficial to use the Moon as a true test bed for these Mars exploration systems will flights to the Moon be conducted. Mars First is a plan to exclusively pursue human exploration of the Mars as fast as possible, without using the Moon as a first destination. Finally, Flexible Path is a scenario that allows humans to visit a wide number of inner solar system bodies, objects and locations, but not go to the surface of those with deep gravity wells. Destinations besides Moon and Mars would include the Earth-Moon and Earth-Sun Lagrange points, near-Earth objects (NEOs) and the moons of Mars. There is nothing implied in this scenario that surface exploration might not follow, simply that exploration would first exploit all that could be done without landing on a planetary surface.
The document also includes a set of questions that need to be answered for each scenario, from how to coordinate human and robotic exploration to the strategy for engaging the commercial sector.