Buzz Aldrin has thrown his weight behind those who believe that the Ares component of NASA's Constellation programme is on a hike to nowhere.
The NASA veteran has insisted the US needs to reprieve the space shuttle for extended operations until 2015, pending development of viable lifting technologies which might ultimately carry mankind to Mars.
Writing in Popular Mechanics, Aldrin's bold plan for the future of space exploration calls for Constellation's Orion capsule to ride a Delta IV or Atlas V, while private space ventures such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule should handle low-Earth orbit tasks.
SpaceX's commercial Falcon venture should, he stresses, be backed by a reprieved shuttle which can until 2015 reduce "unacceptable" US reliance on Russian Soyuz tech to supply the International Space Station.
Aldrin also says any attempted return to the Moon should be an international effort, in which China, Europe, India, Japan and Russia should do the "lion’s share of the planning, technical development and funding". He notes: "By renouncing our goal of being first on the Moon (again), we would call off Space Race II with the Chinese and encourage them to channel their ambitious lunar efforts into the consortium."
The veteran astronaut insists: "The agency’s current Vision for Space Exploration will waste decades and hundreds of billions of dollars trying to reach the moon by 2020 - a glorified rehash of what we did 40 years ago. Instead of a steppingstone to Mars, NASA’s current lunar plan is a detour."
Regarding the Red Planet, Aldrin provocatively suggests NASA should set its sights on "comets, asteroids and Mars’s moon Phobos as intermediate destinations" for an "entirely new spacecraft that I call the Exploration Module, or XM".
The XM, he elaborates, could be "based on NASA’s canceled space station Habitation Module" and ready for testing as early as 2014. By 2025, the XM could be fit to touch down on Martian moon Phobos, described as "the perfect perch from which to monitor and control the robots that will build the infrastructure on the Martian surface, in preparation for the first human visitors".
Aldrin concludes: "But for this dream to happen, NASA needs to dramatically change its ways. Its myopic Vision for Space Exploration will never get us to Mars. Progressive innovation and enlightened international cooperation will. President Obama and Congress need to set NASA right - and soon."
"It will derail our Mars effort, siphoning off money and engineering talent for the next two decades. If we aspire to a long-term human presence on Mars - and I believe that should be our overarching goal for the foreseeable future - we must drastically change our focus."
Aldrin's entertaining broadside will certainly find favour with SpaceX's Elon Musk, who recently told the Obama-appointed human spaceflight review committee his company should be chosen to do "domestic" lifting.
It furthermore endorses the opinion of space shuttle programme manager John Shannon who insisted the level of funding for Constellation "basically took away the lunar programme".
Shannon is backing a "Heavy Lift Vehicle", based on existing space-shuttle lifting technology which could project a crew capsule to orbit or, suitably modified, carry a lander to the Moon.
That Ares will never fulfil NASA's lofty ambitions for the technology is a view shared by Stephen Metschan, proponent of the DIRECT plan's "Jupiter" vehicle - another giant fuel tank backed by solid booster proposal, which could also reach the Moon.
Whatever the human spaceflight review committee eventually decides, it's likely to restrict itself to the modest short-term aims of keeping the ISS victualled and just how to get the US of A back to the lunar surface.
Sadly, a manned jaunt to Phobos from where astronauts can view robotic Buzz Aldrins terraforming Mars for permanent human occupation are likely beyond even America's current capabilties and wallet. ®