We've been in a quandary for years regarding manned space travel. All we've actually done lately is orbit Earth, at a distance of about 250 miles. That's closer to where you are right now than Baltimore. And while we all harbor sci-fi fantasies about sending humans to distant planets (especially our in-laws), the realities are more complex.
Nixing the Moon-return is probably a good idea. We've been there and done that. The Moon is a colorless, dead place. Whenever the Sun shines, no stars can be seen in the black sky, either with the eye or in photographs. Radiation bathes the surface, and this disqualifies the lunar surface as any sort of health spa. Its total lack of air makes it extremely perilous.
Despite these dangers, the public grew bored with Apollo after the second mission, and no network carried any of the last few trips there - Apollos 15 through 17 - except for the final departure moments. Why should going back create any excitement?
We could, of course, skip the Moon and head right for Mars. But that would require at least 14 years of prep time, and it would be fantastically expensive. Even the Moon return was slated to cost $100 billion. As it turned out, the first few years of preparation, which supposedly have been going on since 2007, have not been adequately funded (what a surprise). In any case, given the current era of tight budgets, we should ask ourselves: What do we really want to do?
It appears that the panel will recommend a very sensible and much less costly plan for the next ten years. First, we'll extend the life of the International Space Station. Next, we'll focus on robotic explorations - probably with emphasis on intriguing but not-yet-explored places like Jupiter's ocean-covered moon Europa.
As for manned travel, which was its primary agenda, the panel will recommend that we send people further than Earth orbit but not to the Moon - and not to Mars, either. Rather, astronauts would go to the Lagrangian Points, where Earth's gravity balances with the Sun's. All sorts of cool science can be done from those places, a million miles away. It's 40 times closer than Mars. Astronauts can try out extended missions beyond Earth's protective magnetosphere and see how they fare. This can give our space science time to evolve properly, before we try for Mars.
Does this push Mars beyond our lifetimes? Will it be something witnessed only by our children? Probably. And this certainly is disappointing. It probably means that China will get there first. But it's a sensible plan - and it puts lots of resources into productive robotic explorations. And - unlike the unfunded George Bush plan - it won't break the bank.
Will President Obama fully embrace his panel's suggestions? We'll know within a few weeks; but the smart money says that this is exactly what he had in mind in the first place. In any event, we've just had our first big clue what our country will do off-Earth, for the next decade and more.