May 28, 2012
Credit: Credit: NASA
Frank Morring, Jr./Washington
Russia wants to set up a permanent international Moon base and to focus on the space station as a testbed for human exploration deeper into the Solar System. Japan and India also see value in more lunar exploration, and many of the world's space agencies want to work more closely with China.
None of those views tracks with existing or evolving U.S. space goals and objectives. As Congress and the White House continue their struggle in this election year over NASA's next steps in space, the U.S. agency's international partners are exercising more independence in their own space-exploration plans.
Russia and the European Space Agency (ESA) have expanded the scope of their potential cooperation beyond the joint robotic Mars missions set in motion after the U.S. unilaterally pulled out of ESA's ExoMars effort last year (AW&ST March 19, p. 35). Vladimir Popovkin, head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, is not shy about where he thinks the partnership forged on the International Space Station (ISS) should go next.
“We're not trying to convince you that we should not be doing anything in the area of Mars exploration, asteroid exploration,” Popovkin said May 22 at the first Global Space Exploration Conference here. “It's just in our professional opinion today we have much better chances to come up with very productive results while concentrating on the Moon.”
NASA's stated goal for human exploration in deep space is to reach a near-Earth asteroid by 2025, followed by a trip to Mars in the 2030s. Those dates are notional and highly dependent on budget levels. Congressional staffers briefing the National Research Council's Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science May 23 said prospects are “gloomy” at best for any increases in NASA's budget this year. If funds are sequestered under previous congressional action on deficit reduction, NASA could face a 7-8% cut across the board.
Scientists on the NRC panel are concerned about the impact of the planetary-science budget cuts that took NASA out of its joint Mars-exploration effort with ESA (AW&ST May 14, p. 27). But the effect of the budget uncertainty extends beyond the need for NASA to make new plans for Mars exploration.
Popovkin says in addition to working out roles and responsibilities with ESA on exploring Mars—basically, Russia will provide launches and instruments in exchange for sharing the data—the two agencies are beginning to discuss other cooperative ventures.