I retired from NASA this past January 2013. I served 30 years with our nation's storied government agency; 15 years as a space shuttle and space station trajectory design engineer and then 15 years as a United States Astronaut. I was proud of my service, in both capacities.
When I retired, I had to ask myself the question, "Where do I go from here?" I sense now, almost a year removed from my initial retirement, that while I am actually getting comfortable with where I am going, NASA employees are asking this very same question, "Where do we (NASA) go from here?" In spite of what you may read in the media, for a majority of NASA employees, it is my feeling that the question has yet to have a valid answer.
While I was still an astronaut, and an astronaut veteran at that, then Associate Administrator for spaceflight Lori Garver came to speak to the Astronaut Corps. A private meeting, just Ms. Garver and an attentive group of type A personalities, I would venture to guess there were about 40-45 of us "space fliers" seated in the room. A bit of a "rah, rah" meeting, touting NASA's work in the world of commercial spaceflight (and I think commercial spaceflight is a good thing, but that's another op-ed!), she asked us all a significant question. After some perfunctory remarks, she asked us to raise our hands if "we thought that Mars should be our next destination?" Three astronauts raised their hands. Next, she offered the question again, but this time replacing the Red Planet with the option of an asteroid as our next destination. No one... that's right, no one, raised a hand. When she finally asked us about our near-neighbor the moon, every astronaut, save the three that voted for Mars, raised their hands.
I found this interesting. The majority of the astronaut corps, the people that actually do the space flying, agreed with me --that the moon should be our next destination.
I still feel that way. As I tour the country, giving keynote presentations to the young and old, I am often asked my opinions on this very subject. My answer is always consistent: we need to first return to the Moon.
We are not yet ready to tackle Mars. We do not understand the communication lapses and how we will deal with them. We do not understand the psychological implications of a journey that will take 6-9 months just to get there! In a perfect world, assuming a 6-month trip there and a 6 month trip home, I cannot imagine that we would land on her surface and not spend at least 6 more months living and working there before returning home. So, on a good day, the total trip time is at least 18 months. That's a long time away from Earth and something we have not yet come to grips with. We are trying to learn; to get smarter -- for example, a crew will soon spend a full year onboard the ISS -- but questions remain for how we send necessary stashes of fuel, food, water, spare parts, clothing, etc.; how we dispose of fecal matter (there will be no atmosphere on our interplanetary trajectory into which we can jettison our "poop cans" and have them incinerated through atmospheric friction) and waste.
Theoreticians claim that the surface of Mars or the Moon may provide us with "in situ (on site)" resources that we may take advantage of. They tout our ability to concoct fuel, extract water, create oxygen, simply by "living off the land." While this may be true, how do we do this? Do we understand the technologies required to make these wondrous visions reality? My take is, not yet, but we're working on it.
I liken our position in space to the Pilgrims that arrived on the Mayflower. Upon their initial landing at Plymouth Rock, they struggled mightily, learning to battle the robust climate, satiate their hunger and rectify their lack of sound shelter. Yet, they figured it out, although it took a while (and they had some help when they got here!). Once these pioneers were settled comfortably, living off the land, taming the wilderness with growing knowledge and tenacity, it was only then that they began to venture further into their new world. The ISS is our Plymouth Rock. It is where we are starting to "figure it out." As we begin to venture away from our initial outpost, I favor the Moon as our next destination. A mere three days away with proven 1970s technology, it is a place that we can return to with confidence, a place to begin to develop the very technologies that will be necessities on Mars. A Lunar outpost is a valid and sensible next step.
That's where we go from here. Now, when do we leave?!
Clayton Anderson spent 167 days orbiting the Earth - first as a member of the International Space Station Expedition 15/16 crews, and then again, for 15 days, during a resupply mission with the crew of STS-131 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Anderson, a native Nebraskan and that state's only astronaut, also had the privilege of performing 6 spacewalks over his decorated career, working and playing in the vacuum of outer space for almost 40 hours.