COLORADO SPRINGS — While NASA’s leadership has its eye on cislunar space and Mars as the next destination for astronauts, European Space Agency Director General Johann-Dietrich Wörner believes the lunar surface offers the best chance of ensuring the International Space Station’s (ISS) 15-nation global partnership flourishes.                                                                       

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, and Wörner politely elaborated on their differing positions before an Aug. 13 Space Symposium panel entitled “The Future of Human Space Exploration.”

It’s a topic that may well get another hearing from policy makers in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election in November. The U.S. dropped its budget-challenged Constellation lunar base initiative after the last change in administrations. A re-examination of U.S. human exploration intentions by the Obama administration in 2009 set NASA on a “flexible path” that currently includes an end to ISS operations in 2024. A ramp up of human missions in lunar orbit using the agency’s  Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule hardware with an in-space habitat in the same decade would follow. Missions to the Martian environs would commence in the mid 2030s with a landing to follow.

With Mars as a destination seemingly at least two decades away, Wörner believes a “Moon Village” at the Moon’s unexplored south pole, open to all nations, institutional and private sector interests, has a better chance of combining global resources for the more challenging and expensive push to Mars. But not all of ESA’s member states share the view, he acknowledged.

“The ISS has been very important to paving the way to international cooperation,” Wörner stressed. His Moon Village would open the ISS partnership to new participants, perhaps including countries or companies interested in having only a robotic presence on the lunar surface. While NASA is prohibited by Congress from partnering with China,  Beijing would be welcome at Wörner’s proposed lunar settlement.

“The goal is just to settle on a place that is close enough to be reached by different interests, even independently, then join forces,” Wörner explained. “Moon Village is a pit stop on the way to Mars. It’s good to do something in between, which gives some inspiration. That’s also good.”

Gerstenmaier offered a different perspective on the Moon’s place in NASA’s Journey to Mars. In part, NASA is focused on Mars as a compelling destination for scientific discoveries, among them evidence of extraterrestrial life and perhaps clues to the Earth’s fate. The Moon may offer potential resources for making a long international journey less risky, he explained.

“I’m not sure you absolutely have to go to the surface of the Moon to do the training and other activities,” Gerstenmaier said. “Being in the vicinity of the Moon is very good from an overall standpoint.”

Once on the Martian surface, human explorers will need an estimated 20 tons of oxygen propellant to depart for their journey back to Earth. Astronauts in lunar orbit could work with robots deployed to the Moon’s surface to explore cratered regions for ice, he explained.
Crews in lunar orbit could experiment with technologies for extracting propellants from the ice — techniques that could be employed on the Martian surface as well to generate oxygen for the trip back to Earth.

Astronauts in lunar orbit also may find the lower gravity a more suitable place than the Earth’s “gravity well” for launching the sequence of missions required to sustain a human presence on Mars, Gerstenmaier said.

“I think the Moon will play a key role for us,” he told the  panel audience. “I think from an absolute perspective: Do we have to go to the surface? I don’t think we have to. But if other countries want to ,as the do Europeans, we are fully supportive. We have the team together with enough cooperation to actually benefit them and benefit us.”