This story was updated at 11:46 p.m. ET.
NASA's new space exploration program may be skewed toward sending astronauts to an asteroid and onto Mars, but a return to Earth's moon is not completely lost, NASA's deputy chief told reporters today (Sept. 30).
NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, the space agency's second-in-command, said the moon has a role to play in the new space exploration plan set by President Obama and approved by Congress this week. NASA, she added, won't turn its back on Earth's nearest neighbor. [10 Coolest New Moon Discoveries]
"Lunar science and lunar exploration is alive and well in NASA," Garver said in a teleconference.
Congress approved a NASA authorization bill late Wednesday (Sept. 29) that would give the space agency a $19 billion budget for 2011. The bill supports President Obama's plan to send astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025 and then target a manned trip to Mars in the 2030s.
Obama's plan cancels NASA's moon-oriented Constellation program set forth by former President George W. Bush, which sought to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, but was found to be underfunded and untenable during a White House review last year.
But Garver said the moon is a symbol of inspiration for many people on Earth, in part because of NASA's manned lunar landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The moon is also the most visible of off-world destinations to the public, she added.
"I just won't agree that this ends the moon as a destination," Garver said. "We look up in the night sky and see the moon 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 handful of missions ? the six successful Apollo moon landings ? have sent humans to walk on the moon's surface.
"Of course, we have been there with 12 humans. We will be going back with humans. We will be going back with robots," Garver said. "And the fact that we are charting the next destination as an asteroid is nothing against the moon."
The NASA authorization bill approved by Congress outlines the vital need for the United States "to sustain a human presence in space," Garver said.
"And the moon is part of any long-term sustainable presence in space," she added.
NASA currently has one spacecraft orbiting the moon, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which began a new science-oriented mission after spending a year mapping and scouting the lunar surface to support exploration programs.
The space agency plans more robotic probes, as do other countries. China, India and Japan have all sent probes in recent years, with China's second lunar probe Chang'e 2 is also headed for the moon.
The moon is also a goal for commercial enterprises as well.
The Virginia-based space tourism firm Space Adventures has been drawing up plans for private trips around the moon on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for several 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 million Google Lunar X Prize contest for private teams capable of building and launching robot lunar probes.
So the moon, Garver said, will continue to be a target for both government and private space exploration. But that doesn't mean the agency plans to shirk its more distant goal.
"Going to an asteroid is a unique thing," she said.? It is "an important step in that outward migration of humanity."
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