LOGAN, Utah - NASA is marching forward on its Moon, Mars and beyond planning, a multi-step action agenda enunciated by President George W. Bush as the vision for space exploration in January 2004. One goal of that plan is returning humans to the Moon as early as 2015 and no later than 2020.

NASA's top official, Mike Griffin, has his multi-tasking hands full in shaping and implementing the vision strategy--from the ground up: new launch vehicles for crew and cargo, a six-person Crew Exploration Vehicle, as well as looking at the future of international cooperation in putting verve to the vision.

Griffin spoke to SPACE.com during the 20th Annual Conference on Small Satellites held here earlier this month at Utah State University.

CEV: stressing requirements

NASA is set to announce on August 31 the prime contractor to design, develop, and build the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)--now dubbed Orion--a replacement of the government's space shuttle. As a system, the CEV will accomplish in many areas what the shuttle offers, Griffin said, but also must fly back and forth between the Earth and the Moon.

"In later decades, the CEV will be one piece of the Mars architecture. It's how people will come home from Mars through the atmosphere. So the CEV has some pretty stressing requirements on it," Griffin explained.

But the ultimate goal of the CEV program is not the creation of new technologies, Griffin warned.

"The CEV is primarily a tool for getting humans up through the atmosphere and back down through the atmosphere. And my goal is to do it as simply and safely as possible."

What needs to be shaken off is the idea that the U.S. civilian space program is all about flying from Earth's surface to low Earth orbit, Griffin added.

"The excitement is what we're going to do at the Moon; when we're going to go to Mars and what we're going to do there," he said. "It's not about the first and last hundred miles."

Given the vision's long-term strategy, harmonized with tight budgets, is the quest more a mission impossible?

"Certainly not," Griffin responded. "I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. And I think that's the strategy that is going to help us now."

Griffin said the space agency has enough money to do the core things that it wants to do for exploration and science. "Science is well funded," he said, however "we don't have enough money to do ... things as rapidly as all of us would like."

Enlisting international partners

Griffin outlined his thoughts on the role of international cooperation within the vision.

"We hope to enlist international partners, to bring some of the elements that we won't be able to afford to build," Griffin said. "We don't have big habitats, laboratories, power stations, things like that for a lunar base. We don't have them in our budget. We have got transportation 'to and from' in our budget."

The arrangement that NASA's hoping for is much like that of the International Space Station (ISS), Griffin said. But that's also a pact that has been roundly criticized by non-U.S. ISS partners in the past.

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"The criticism that--to put slightly more detail on it--is that America dictated everyone's role," he said. "I'm not for exploration dictating anyone's role except America's. I'm saying this is what the United States will do."

There are a myriad of other things that international partners or commercial entities could bring to the vision table, Griffin suggested, such as launching robotic cargo landers on Europe's Ariane 5 to deliver scientific instruments and telescopes to the Moon.

"We will be very receptive to that. But I'm not prescribing any of them. And I've been very clear about that," Griffin added. "The role of international cooperation is not to help figure out what the United States will spend its money on."

Three days from home

Griffin was blunt about NASA's need to rekindle its engineering might to return humans to the Moon--a repeat feat done in 1969 through 1972.

"People seem to have an attitude that because people two generations ago went to the Moon that we have all that experience, that we have the equipment just waiting in reserve. We don't. We don't have the equipment. We don't have the tooling. In some cases, we don't even have the basic technology any more. And we certainly don't have the experience base in the people for spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit," Griffin observed.

Before NASA can send an expedition to Mars, the space agency needs to recreate that full infrastructure, Griffin said. "And the place to apply it is at the Moon when you're three days from home."

In looking outward beyond the Moon, Griffin said he envisions Mars as a human destination for the United States in the mid-2020's or beyond.

"I don't think anybody thinks that 2025 or beyond is unrealistic. You could go to Mars sooner if we didn't have a policy that says we're doing other things. But our nation's space policy says that we will finish the space station (and) that we will return to the Moon. So if you're going to do those things then Mars is going to have to wait a bit. It's a fiscal matter more than it is a technical matter," Griffin concluded.