At last, we are going back to the moon. After 30 years of denial, we appear to have finally accepted mankind's destiny to explore the stars.
Unfortunately, while the tools we use to get there will be 21st century, some of the underlying attitudes may still be stuck in the 1950s.
Here's the deal: On Monday, NASA unveiled its master plan for putting men (and women this time) back on the moon, and from there, on to Mars. The goal for the first lunar landing is 2018, and is estimated to cost $104 billion.
According to NASA's plan, this exploration will be accomplished using a combination of Apollo and space shuttle technologies -- i.e., a rocket that will be nearly as tall, and even heavier, than the Saturn V, and that will launch a "crew exploration vehicle" into space. The rocket, as with Apollo, will be largely lost in the launch, while the crew vehicle will be reusable up to 10 times.
This rocket will put into low orbit with the actual moon rocket, as well as the lunar lander. This will in turn be joined by the crew exploration vehicle -- and, once joined, they will fire off on the three-day voyage to the moon.
Once at the moon, a la Apollo, the spacecraft, composed of separate crew and service modules, will orbit -- and here's where it gets interesting -- while the lunar lander will travel down to the moon's surface and back multiple times. This will enable astronauts to stay on the moon for months at a time, exploring, researching sustained life on the moon, and developing processes for creating fuel for the far longer trip to Mars.
One of the anticipated glories of the new NASA Lunar Mission will be its showcasing how far technology has come since the days of the Apollo 11 -- which seemed so sophisticated at the time, but in retrospect, looks like the American Flyer in the first round-the-world road race.
The new rockets will be lighter, more powerful and safer, thanks to breakthroughs in propellants, composite materials and guidance systems. And the crew exploration vehicle will feature powerful solid-state computation and communications systems that couldn't have even been imagined in the old slide rule and vacuum tube days of early NASA. Perhaps most breathtaking of all, the lunar rover will occasionally travel to and from the moon unmanned, piloted entirely by robotics.
It is all very exciting… and long overdue. The Gen X-ers seem especially excited, as well they should be. Not only were they born too late to see the last moon landing, but at last, they may have found the great generational quest they've been longing and training (think computer games, robotic competitions, Star Wars/Trek, extreme sports, etc.) for their entire lives.
Some, like Elon Musk, couldn't wait for NASA. He took the millions he made founding PayPal and started Space Explorations Technology, the celebrated new rocket launch company. As it happens, Elon and I made a small side bet a couple years ago after he predicted to me that he would put a man on Mars within 15 years. It is a bet I sincerely hope to lose.