New Moon Probe Raises Space Exploration Issue

Article excerpt

The last moon mission on NASA's current schedule - a small, unmanned spacecraft that will study moon dust and the lunar atmosphere - is scheduled to launch on Friday from Wallops Island, Virginia, elating scientists who study the moon but highlighting political questions about what NASA should do next.

The Smart Car-size spacecraft, which NASA calls the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, will take 30 days to get into orbit around the moon, spend the next 30 days checking its equipment and proceed with scientific work for 100 days, searching for water molecules in the atmosphere and gathering data about the curious substance known as lunar dust. Then the probe, which goes by the acronym Ladee (pronounced laddie), will take a death plunge into the rocky surface of the subject it is studying.

The results of the scientific program could be helpful in preparing for future manned missions to the moon. Although NASA currently does not have such plans, some members of Congress have called on the space agency to return to the moon rather than pursue its current space objectives.

Although there is wide agreement that NASA should ultimately aim for a manned flight to Mars, that goal is far off. The more immediate plan, which has been criticized on Capitol Hill, is to capture an asteroid and tow it closer to home so astronauts can visit it.

But NASA has continued sending unmanned spacecraft to the moon; the coming mission will be the third to go there in five years. While scientists are excited about what the experiment may yield, they are also concerned about the absence of future moon voyages on NASA's schedule.

"If you're going to fly this mission with the goal of understanding the atmosphere and how dust might affect future human missions, and you don't have the future human missions, then part of the reason for the mission disappears," said David Kring, senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, a NASA-financed research institute in Houston. …