A week from Monday marks the third anniversary of President Obama’s speech at the Kennedy Space Center where he formally announced the goal of a human mission to an asteroid by 2025. While that is an official goal of NASA’s human space exploration program, there remains some opposition or, at the very least, lack of acceptance of the goal by many people, including some with NASA, as a report on NASA’s strategic direction concluded last December.
At a joint meeting of the Space Studies Board and the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board in Washington on Thursday, the head of that study, Al Carnesale of UCLA, reiterated those concerns. “Since it was announced, there was less enthusiasm for it among the community broadly,” he said of the asteroid mission goal. “The more we learn about it, the more we hear about it, people seem less enthusiastic about it.”
Carnesale suggested that, in his opinion, it might be better to shelve the asteroid mission goal in favor of a human return to the Moon. “There’s a great deal of enthusiasm, almost everywhere, for the Moon,” he said. “I think there might be, if no one has to swallow their pride and swallow their words, and you can change the asteroid mission a little bit… it might be possible to move towards something that might be more of a consensus.”
Carnesale was followed at the meeting by NASA administrator Charles Bolden, who showed no sign of accepting Carnesale’s advice. He noted that a number of nations have expressed interest, to varying degrees, in human lunar exploration. “They all have dreams of putting human 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 wants to be a participant.”
However, he made it clear NASA has no plans to lead its own human return to the Moon under his watch. “NASA will not take the lead on a human lunar mission,” he said. “NASA is not going to the Moon with a human as a primary project probably in my lifetime. And the reason is, we can only do so many things.” Instead, he said the focus would remain on human missions to asteroids and to Mars. “We intend to do that, and we think it can be done.”
“I don’t know how to say it any more plainly,” he concluded. “NASA does not have a human lunar mission in its portfolio and we are not planning for one.” He warned that if the next administration tries to change course again back to the Moon, “it means we are probably, in our lifetime, in the lifetime of everybody sitting in this room, we are probably never again going to see Americans on the Moon, on Mars, near an asteroid, or anywhere. We cannot continue to change the course of human exploration.”