Moon, Mars, Asteroids: NASA’s Griffin Charts Vision Strategy

LOGAN, Utah - NASA is marchingforward on its Moon, Mars and beyond planning, a multi-step action agendaenunciated by President George W. Bush as the vision for space exploration inJanuary 2004. One goal of that plan is returning humans to the Moon as early as2015 and no later than 2020.

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

Griffin spoke to SPACE.comduring the 20th Annual Conference on Small Satellites held hereearlier this month at Utah State University.

CEV: stressing requirements

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

"Inlater decades, the CEV will be one piece of the Mars architecture. It's howpeople will come home from Mars through the atmosphere. So the CEV has somepretty stressing requirements on it," Griffin explained.

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

"TheCEV is primarily a tool for getting humans up through the atmosphere and backdown through the atmosphere. And my goal is to do it as simply and safely aspossible."

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

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

Giventhe vision's long-term strategy, harmonized with tight budgets, is the questmore a mission impossible?

"Certainlynot," Griffin responded. "I just keep putting one foot in front of the otherand moving forward. And I think that's the strategy that is going to help usnow."

Griffin said the spaceagency has enough money to do the core things that it wants to do forexploration and science. "Science is well funded," he said, however "we don'thave enough money to do ... things as rapidly as all of us would like."

Enlisting international partners

Griffin outlined histhoughts on the role of international cooperation within the vision.

"Wehope to enlist international partners, to bring some of the elements that we won'tbe 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 havethem in our budget. We have got transportation 'to and from' in our budget."

Thearrangement that NASA's hoping for is much like that of the International SpaceStation (ISS), Griffin said. But that's also a pact that has been roundlycriticized by non-U.S. ISS partners in the past.

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

Thereare a myriad of other things that international partners or commercial entitiescould bring to the vision table, Griffin suggested, such as launching roboticcargo landers on Europe's Ariane 5 to deliver scientific instruments and telescopesto the Moon.

"Wewill be very receptive to that. But I'm not prescribing any of them. And I'vebeen very clear about that," Griffin added. "The role of internationalcooperation is not to help figure out what the United States will spend itsmoney on."

Three days from home

Griffin was blunt aboutNASA's need to rekindle its engineering might to return humans to the Moon--arepeat feat done in 1969 through 1972.

"Peopleseem to have an attitude that because people two generations ago went to the Moonthat we have all that experience, that we have the equipment just waiting inreserve. We don't. We don't have the equipment. We don't have the tooling. Insome cases, we don't even have the basic technology any more. And we certainlydon't have the experience base in the people for spaceflight beyond low Earthorbit," Griffin observed.

BeforeNASA can send an expedition to Mars, the space agency needs to recreate thatfull infrastructure, Griffin said. "And the place to apply it is at the Moonwhen you're three days from home."

Inlooking outward beyond the Moon, Griffin said he envisions Mars as a humandestination for the United States in the mid-2020's or beyond.

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

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.