Radiation and the cost of getting out of a gravity well are keeping us from reaching other planets, and a Presidential commission looking into NASA's future sees no easy answers.
Even if a space elevator made it easy to reach space from Earth, and the panel was not yet ready to even conceive of such a thing, it takes enormous energy to get off any planet once you land on it.
So the recommendation seems to be flyby of the Moon followed by trips to LaGrange points where the gravitation of the Moon and Earth, or the Earth and Sun, cancel one another out.
Eventually landings could be made on Mars' moons, followed by robotic exploration of the planet's surface. A final paper is due at the end of August.
Even that more modest plan, which sci-fi readers may explore in books like Allen Steele's Clarke County, Space, written in 2000, faces big hurdles. The Space Shuttle fleet was due for retirement next year, and the International Space Station is due for mothballing in 2016.
If you extend the life of the Shuttles another two years, the "space gap" to the next-generation Ares I/Orion IOC system will be more than five years said former astronaut Sally Ride, who is heading the group's subcommittee on space lift. Ares hasn't been given the budget to make its deadline.
Then there's the problem of radiation, which science fiction seldom mentions. A 500 day Mars mission might kill the Astronauts.
Another problem, which I noticed in reading local news stories about the committee's work, is that Florida, Huntsville, and Houston are now established as centers for space work, and what folks there want to talk about is jobs.
That's why Houston wants NASA to stick to its original Bush-era timetables. It's why Huntsville's rockets drew so much local support. Never mind that it might make more sense to outsource space lift.
None of the choices being offered seems very appetizing. They are all based on a tightly-constrained U.S. government budget. That may put our next Moon landing at 2028.
So here is my question. If all this costs so much, why are U.S. taxpayers seen as the only people who can foot the bill? Doesn't the rest of the world have an interest in space? Doesn't space fire more of the public imagination than that of government?
I think it's time that private industry and the global citizenry started driving this train. America's Cold War gave us just a dream of space, and a taste. The main course is the responsibility of everyone.
Space flight is all about the Benjamins. Keep the Shuttle going, extend the life of the ISS, and your timeline for a new Moon flight is delayed further.
If your kids are ever going to make it to the Moon, they'll only get by with a little help from their friends all around the world.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com