The Obama administration's present policy will require NASA to rely on Russia and the private sector to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station for the next several years, while the agency focuses on development of a new heavy-lift rocket and a new craft to take astronauts into deep space: the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, or MPCV. Current plans call for astronauts to explore an asteroid in 2025, followed by an expedition to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
However, with the new space vehicles not expected to be ready until 2020, some doubt that the Obama plan will achieve its objectives. The critics cite its heavy reliance on the private sector and Russia for human access to space, as well as its vague long-term destinations, as red flags. "NASA's human spaceflight program is in substantial disarray with no clear-cut mission in the offing," former astronauts Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and Jim Lovell wrote in a recent open letter to the Obama administration. "After a half-century of remarkable progress, a coherent plan for maintaining America's leadership in space exploration is no longer apparent."
While the former astronauts are correct that we have had 50 years of remarkable progress in space exploration, we haven't progressed in every area. The long-pursued goal of significantly reducing the cost of space exploration, for example, has been frustratingly elusive. The space shuttle cost more than $1 billion per launch, a far cry from the hoped-for $7 million per-launch estimates touted at the program's inception.
In a huge gamble, the Obama administration is trying to reduce those costs by tapping into the private sector. NASA has already committed billions of dollars to private firms such as SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 rocket could potentially ferry NASA astronauts into space. However, critics of SpaceX and some of the other private firms are troubled by NASA's commitment to them, citing the limitations of their rockets and business plans.
I applaud President Obama's efforts to reduce costs, but my main reservation is that his plan lacks an achievable, short-term destination that will capture the public's imagination. Both Bush administrations set goals of returning to the moon within 15 years, followed by a mission to Mars within 30 years. But cost concerns and the long time frames inevitably led to public apathy and little congressional support.
Lately, the debate over the next space destination generally breaks down around three possibilities: a return to the moon, a mission to an asteroid, or a mission to Mars. But there is another potential mission that would capture the imagination of the public, could be achieved within the time frame of an eight-year presidency, and would incorporate aspects of all three of the other possible destinations: the Martian moon Phobos.
Phobos is believed to be a "captured" asteroid, and a comprehensive study of its origin and composition by astronauts could help develop effective methods for deflecting an asteroid on an earthbound trajectory. Also, Phobos' low gravity and lack of atmosphere mean a landing there would be much easier and cheaper than a Mars landing. In addition, its proximity to Mars would enable astronauts to conduct detailed studies of the Martian atmosphere and surface. Current technology makes such a mission achievable, and it would require only a small increase in NASA's budget, which amounts to a minuscule 0.6 percent of the federal budget.
As we look back on the legacy of the space shuttle, it's important to remember the hope that surrounded the first launch of Columbia back in 1981. We need to rekindle that optimism with an achievable destination that will capture the public's support and imagination. Phobos is just such a destination.
Chris Gibbons is a writer from Philadelphia and a longtime member of the Planetary Society, which advocates space exploration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.