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Moon Exploration Is Not Dead, NASA Official Says

Moon Exploration Is Not Dead, NASA Official Says
Skywatcher Andrew Brown in Ashford, Kent, in the U.K. snapped this photo of the moon on Sept. 18, 2010 during International Observe the Moon Night. (Image credit: Andrew Brown.)

This story was updated at 11:46 p.m. ET.

NASA's new space exploration program may be skewed towardsending astronauts to an asteroid and onto Mars, but a return to Earth's moonis not completely lost, NASA's deputy chief told reporters today (Sept. 30).

NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, the space agency'ssecond-in-command, said the moon has a role to play in the new spaceexploration plan set by President Obama and approved by Congress this week.NASA, she added, won't turn its back on Earth's nearest neighbor. [10Coolest New Moon Discoveries]

"Lunar science and lunarexploration is alive and well in NASA," Garver said in a teleconference.

Congress approved a NASAauthorization bill late Wednesday (Sept. 29) that would givethe space agency a $19 billion budget for 2011. The bill supports PresidentObama's plan to send astronauts to visitan asteroid by 2025 and then target a manned trip to Mars in the2030s.

Obama's plan cancels NASA's moon-oriented Constellationprogram set forth by former President George W. Bush, which sought to returnastronauts to the moon by 2020, but was found to be underfunded and untenableduring a White House review last year.

But Garver said the moon is a symbol of inspiration formany people on Earth, in part because of NASA's manned lunar landings of thelate 1960s and early 1970s. The moon is also the most visible of off-worlddestinations to the public, she added.

"I just won't agree that this ends the moon as adestination," Garver said. "We look up in the night sky and see themoon and it is an inspiration to us all. My first son's first word was'moon.'"

In the nearly 49 years of human spaceflight, only a handfulof missions ? the six successful Apollo moon landings ? have sent humans towalk on the moon's surface.

"Of course, we have been there with 12 humans. Wewill be going back with humans. We will be going back with robots," Garversaid. "And the fact that we are charting the next destination as anasteroid is nothing against the moon."

The NASA authorization bill approved by Congress outlinesthe vital need for the United States "to sustain a human presence inspace," Garver said.

"And the moon is part of any long-term sustainablepresence in space," she added.

NASA currently has one spacecraft orbiting the moon, theLunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which began a new science-oriented mission afterspending a year mapping and scouting the lunar surface to support explorationprograms.

The space agency plans more robotic probes, as do othercountries. China, India and Japan have all sent probes in recent years, withChina's second lunarprobe Chang'e 2 is also headed for the moon.

The moon is also a goal for commercial enterprises aswell.

The Virginia-based space tourism firm Space Adventures has been drawingup plans for private trips around the moon on Russian Soyuz spacecraft forseveral years. The Las Vegas-based company Bigelow Aerospace has also studied the potential of private moon bases built from its inflatable space modules.

The moon also serves as the finish line for the $30 millionGoogle Lunar X Prize contest for private teams capable of building andlaunching robot lunar probes.

So the moon, Garver said, will continue to be a targetfor both government and private space exploration. But that doesn't mean theagency plans to shirk its more distant goal.

"Going to an asteroid is a unique thing," shesaid.? It is "an important step in that outward migration ofhumanity."

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Tariq Malik

SPACE.COM EDITOR IN CHIEF — Tariq joined the team in 2001 as a staff writer, and later editor, covering human spaceflight, exploration and space science. He became's Managing Editor in 2009. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Google+, Twitter and on Facebook.