After a decade of waiting, young space enthusiasts across the country are celebrating a new plan that will take them and their colleagues to the Moon and on to Mars.
"I have been waiting a long time for NASA to go beyond low Earth orbit!" said 26-year-old aerospace engineer Alicia Evans, "If they need volunteers, I am there."
The new plan is set to fit within the current NASA budget, a major change from space exploration programs of the past. Loretta Hidalgo, 31-year-old president of the Space Generation Foundation, says, "What it will give us is more bang for our space buck."
NASA has also built the next generation of space entrepreneurs into the plan, showing an unprecedented level of support for new space players like 30-something Elon Musk. (Musk founded and sold the popular internet payment site PayPal before beginning his latest venture, launch company Space Exploration Technologies). The new plan will provide contracting opportunities to stimulate a healthy entrepreneurial space sector in low Earth orbit while NASA focuses on the next frontier.
The Next Gen spacers see the new Moon missions as a giant leap forward from Apollo. The lunar crews will be able to stay for seven days instead of just three, while benefiting from 40 years of advances in materials science and computing. They will able to land anywhere on the Moon -- including the polar craters, thought to be a possible hiding place for water. There's even a plan for a lunar outpost in the works, capable of stays measured in months, not days.
The overall goal is to pave the way for outposts and human missions in a sustainable way so that the exploration will continue indefinitely. This is important to a generation who grew up seeing the Earth as a fragile blue marble, and who have felt the disappointment of space programs being cancelled just as they were reading about them in their copies of Ranger Rick.
The plan is designed with future Mars missions in mind. The launch vehicle, the number of crew the CEV can carry and even the type of fuel the Lunar Ascent Vehicle uses are all consistent with what is needed for the next step in exploration: sending humans on to Mars. That is the opportunity many of the next generation have been waiting for their whole lives.
"We now have an opportunity for our generation to make our mark on human history," said George Whitesides, Executive Director of the National Space Society, age 31. "Our parents and grandparents took us to the Moon the first time. Now it's time for us to go back to the Moon to stay, and then head straight for Mars."
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said that science will dictate where to land and what to do while we are there. "Now is the time to be in school for a science degree," added Evans, "because it will be our generation out there exploring the Moon." With the first missions to the lunar surface set to begin in 2018, it won't just be Shuttle-era astronauts getting moon dust on their boots. The under-40 engineers now working on tough science questions will be the core of the NASA workforce in 13 years. This means jobs as mission controllers, vehicle support specialists, and, yes, lunar and martian astronauts.
As John F. Kennedy said 43 years ago, it will not be easy to go to the moon, but the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. Generation X-plorers are chomping at the bit to test themselves against the challenge of their lives. Ad Astra!
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