Shortly after 11:30 p.m. Houston time on December 13, 1972, the commander of Apollo 17, Gene Cernan, took one final look across Mare Serenitatis, climbed into the lunar module and closed the hatch. It was the last time anyone has had his boots planted in alien soil. Since then, the human space program has been adrift. Lacking an overarching mission, astronauts putter around in orbit doing make-work.
This past January 14, President George W. Bush gave them something big to shoot for: a return to the moon by 2020 and a human mission to Mars sometime after that. His plan phases out the shuttle by 2010, replaces it by 2014 and abandons the space station in 2016. A presidential commission headed by aerospace veteran Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, Jr., has started to flesh out the details, and NASA is already ramping up a technology development effort. Meanwhile the European Space Agency has laid out similar goals with a similar timetable and initial budget. Plenty of blanks need to be filled in, but that is natural in the early stages of a multigenerational project.
This article was originally published with the title Breaking Out of Orbit.