Should nations fly to the moon together?
As exploring the heavens becomes more expensive, many experts think it is time for nations to band together to push humanity to the next threshold of space exploration.
Ed Weiler was ready for a break. So the top scientist at NASA looked for his friend David Southwood of the European Space Agency (ESA) to join him in a respite from the second day of talks at a meeting about Mars probes, orbital spacecraft, and plucky planetary rovers. It was July in Annapolis, Md. Hot. Sultry. The two men sat on a terrace overlooking the salt-scented seaside town.Skip to next paragraph
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Over a Diet Pepsi and coffee, Drs. Weiler and Southwood chatted amiably about their ultimate passion – and one of the holy grails of planetary science: bringing back a rock sample from Mars. But the conversation inevitably got bogged down in the hard reality of arithmetic. Both knew it would take at least $1 billion just to land a spacecraft on the Red Planet.
Then the two men had a eureka moment: Why not have NASA and ESA team up on a venture? Not just one agency putting an instrument on another's spacecraft. An entire set of missions – jointly.
As Weiler put it: "Maybe we ought to be conceiving these things upfront, together."
The result: An announcement this past July of a pioneering agreement between the two agencies to develop a joint Mars exploration program. The effort would begin with missions in 2016 and 2018. It would reach its apex in the 2020s with the first return in the history of the human species of soil and rock samples from another planet.
The venture hatched over talk of money and Martian geology may now become a template for international cooperation in space over the next generation. As exploration of the heavens becomes increasingly expensive, many experts around the world think we have reached a hinge moment in history when joint ventures are the best – and perhaps only – way to undertake distant exploration, both manned and unmanned, of the cosmos.
And why not? The world science community has already come together to smash atoms beneath pastureland on the Swiss-French border. It has joined hands to probe distant galaxies with a china cabinet of radio-telescope dishes on a desert expanse in Chile. It is collaborating on an experimental nuclear-fusion reactor that could herald the way to producing unlimited energy. Why not send vessels together to Mars or Titan or Europa?
To a certain extent, of course, we already do. The International Space Station, by name and definition, is a collaborative project. The Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn is a cooperative venture of NASA and the European and Italian space agencies, and the United States had a key instrument on the probe India recently ferried to the moon.
But these tend to be lone projects – a lunar water sensor supplied here, a joint satellite launch there. Some now believe it's time for true collaboration – missions jointly conceived, jointly funded, and jointly carried out – to push mankind to the next threshold of space exploration and to forge a new spirit of cooperation among nations. In other words, a sort of Star Trek Starfleet Command. They see it as the only way mankind can continue the quest, innate since the days of the caveman, to find out "what's over the next horizon."
Yet before the world embarks on any kind of cosmic Kumbaya ride, a fundamental question looms: Can spacefaring nations really overcome the impediments that have traditionally inhibited such ventures – national pride, suspicion of sharing technology, bureaucratic and cultural differences?