A master plan for space just issued by the Planetary Society is in the cross-hairs of former Apollo 17 moonwalker and U.S. Senator Jack Schmitt.
Schmitt said the new plan, which favors Mars over the moon as a destination for a globally inclusive manned mission, would initiate the decline of American global influence and open the door for other countries to conquer space.
The Planetary Society's Beyond the Moon: A New Roadmap for Human Space Exploration in the 21st Century report was briefed to the media in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 13. That roadmap, in part, calls for the United States to focus on Mars as the driving goal of human spaceflight and defer humans landing on the moon until the costs of the interplanetary transportation system and shuttle replacement are largely paid.
Those goals "seem to have gone back to being more political than rational," Schmitt responded in a letter to Louis Friedman, Executive Director of the Planetary Society; Cornell University Professor and planetary scientist Jim Bell, the Society's President; and Stanford University Professor and Society Board member Scott Hubbard.
Last month, Schmitt stepped down from his chairmanship of the NASA Advisory Council -- a high-powered group that provides advice to the NASA administrator on important program and policy matters related to the U.S. space program.
"Having been deeply involved in this issue for many years, and having led several objective studies related to it, it is clear to me, and many other knowledgeable people, that returning to the moon is the fastest and most cost effective path to Mars," Schmitt advised in the letter also sent to this reporter.
"Not going by way of the moon will make the Mars objective far more difficult and more costly to achieve," Schmitt explained.
Sustaining political support
Schmitt spotlights a host of moon-first reasons, and adds: "Returning to the moon has a far better chance of sustained political support than does a far, far more costly, start from scratch Mars program. Absent sustained and increased budgetary support for the Vision for Space Exploration by the incoming Administration and Congress, any deep space initiative will be in doubt."
As for deferring humans landing on the moon until the costs of the interplanetary transportation system and shuttle replacement are largely paid, Schmitt also finds fault with the Planetary Society roadmap.
One nation, one vote
The Planetary Society's roadmap also calls for the "United States to create -- in cooperation with international partners – a space program that is as inspiring as it is sustainable in the world's current economic climate."
But Schmitt responded: "I see that the Society has gone back to its roots on ‘international cooperation.' If that phrase means ‘international management' of the critical path items in a Mars Program, then you clearly do not want to go to Mars. Nothing will prevent success with more certainty than to try this." The Apollo 17 moon walker suggests that the rest of the world will want a "one-nation, one vote" management regime "for which history shows only a record of abject failure."
It also appears that there may be a bit of a lunar dust-up between Schmitt and Apollo 11 moonwalker, Buzz Aldrin.
After reading the Planetary Society's roadmap, Aldrin agreed that leadership, change and cooperation were needed in the U.S. human space flight program. In a Planetary Society statement issued at the time of the roadmap's release, Aldrin said that "U.S. landings on the moon should be deferred so that they can be part of an international base on the moon preparing the way for permanent settlement of Mars."
Aldrin also called for earlier steps to Mars, including human visits to a near-Earth object and humans operating on a Martian moon preparatory to the Mars settlement.
"I am glad these steps to eventual permanent occupation of Mars were included in the Planetary Society's roadmap," Aldrin added.
In a closing sentence to his letter, Schmitt concluded: "Many of the Society's members are good friends, but I just cannot support you in this effort."
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Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com'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 was 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.