This WaPo piece by Joel Achenbach has something missing:
The panel will give the administration a menu of options that includes some that require a boost in funding for human spaceflight, which currently costs a little less than $10 billion a year, including the shuttle, the station and the Constellation program. Those options will include variations of a lunar program — the committee appears to prefer to see astronauts making sorties to various locations on the moon rather than concentrating on a single outpost at the moon’s pole, which is the current plan.
The committee is clearly most animated by what it calls the “Deep Space” option, a strategy that emphasizes getting astronauts far beyond low Earth orbit but not necessarily plunking them down on alien worlds. Instead, the Deep Space strategy would send them to near-Earth asteroids and to gravitationally significant points in space, known as Lagrange points, that are beyond the Earth’s protective magnetosphere.
Astronauts might even go all the way to Phobos, a tiny moon of Mars, where the spaceship wouldn’t land so much as rendezvous, in the same way a spacecraft docks at the International Space Station. That might seem a long way to go without touching down on the planet below. But the Deep Space option steers clear of “gravity wells,” which is to say the surface of any planet or large moon. The energy requirements of going up and down those steep gravity hills are so great that it would take many heavy-lift rocket ships to carry supplies and fuel on a mission to the Martian surface. A human landing on Mars is presently beyond NASA’s reach under any reasonable budgetary scenario, the committee has determined.
Note that there is absolutely no discussion of refueling, though that was a key feature of several of the Augustine options. The piece seems to be entirely focused (as the press tends to do, in its simplistic reporting) on destinations, and their various attributes, desirable or otherwise. This notion of a “long way to go without touching down on the planet below” seems to be an artifact of limited imagination.
First of all, once you’re at Phobos, if you send the right equipment, you might in fact be able manufacture the propellant needed to descend to the surface, manufacture propellant there, and come back up. The additional mass needed to do this would be trivial, compared to the IMLEO (initial mass in low earth orbit) required to do a Mars landing staged from earth. All it would take is a refuelable lander, and the equipment necessary to process the asteroid (which is what Phobos or Deimos are, other than their location).
But beyond that, what’s wrong with Phobos? I think that John Logsdon’s attitude is blinkered as well (not that that would be anything new):
Any strategy going forward must cope with the obvious problem that the United States has already visited the moon, and the solar system offers earthlings few other appealing places to go that are anywhere close at hand. Logsdon said he wasn’t sure that the Deep Space option, with its emphasis on “flybys” rather than landings, would be easy to sell to the public.
“I wonder myself if just flying around and not landing anywhere would be very attractive,” he said.
This from a guy who has never expressed any interest or desire to go himself, but thinks he knows what people want from a space program. First of all, you aren’t “not landing anywhere.” You are landing on frickin’ Phobos. The fact that it’s a lot easier than having to descend into a gravity well doesn’t make it less interesting. Yes, obviously, most people would rather walk on Mars, but (at least in NASA’s plans) most people aren’t going to be able to do any of these things. And on such a huge planet, even if someone lands on Mars, will it be the most interesting part of Mars? Not initially. Armstrong and Aldrin landed in the Sea of Tranquility not for any particular points of interest, but because it was the biggest flattest mare they knew of on the near side. It’s not like the first Mars explorers are going to climb Olympus Mons.
Seeing the earth from ISS, through glass and with their own eyes, unfiltered by electronics, is the most fascinating thing that astronauts there do. Why would we think that looking at Mars from Phobos would be of any less interest?
While I’m not that big on the voyeurism inherent in the NASA human spaceflight program as currently executed, I would think that having humans orbiting the Red Planet, and reporting back their experiences in their own words, would be pretty damned exciting (though I’d hope that given how picky they can be about astronaut selection, one of the criteria they would use was communications ability and articulateness, and even poetic ability — a lot of astronauts are good at this, but many aren’t, and when they are, it seems to be accidental, e.g., Mike Collins). There is no reason that you should have to descend into a deep gravity well to make deep space exploration exciting, and I tire of the notion that there is.