The Vision for Space Exploration

The Lunar Roving Vehicle used on Apollo 15, 16 and 17 proved how valuable a rover could be to expanding the scope of the lunar mission and increased the level of scientific discovery this made possible. The Martian rovers Sojourner, Spirit and Opportunity proved that exploration of distant planets by robotic rovers could be of immense benefit, discovering the former presence of liquid water and how that presence influenced the formation of Mars' surface features. The Mars Science Laboratory holds the promise of discovering possible microbial life. Rovers, both robotic and human-driven, have proven their worth in the exploration of the Moon and Mars.

In the decades that followed Project Apollo, there were numerous proposals issued by NASA and space exploration advocacy groups for a return to manned space exploration on the Moon and even on to Mars. But Apollo was a hard act to follow. It was born of a geopolitical imperative that marshaled the United States like nothing seen since the Manhattan Project. Some argue that the International Space Station has been more technologically challenging than Apollo was, but many would disagree with that premise. Project Apollo broke more technological ground than anything undertaken by man in modern history. It literally transformed the industrial landscape of America, and it entailed an unprecedented degree of danger for the crews involved. The ISS, despite being a technological triumph, has never had the glamour, if you will, of Apollo. Nevertheless, human space exploration today is no less dangerous than it was decades ago. Certainly, United States astronauts are trained just as rigorously as ever.

What is certain is this: decisions by the U.S. government to commit to large engineering programs like the Space Transportation System and the International Space Station locked the nation into a mode of low-Earth-orbit activities that has precluded any human capability to return to the Moon or explore the most intriguing of the near planets: Mars. Nevertheless, efforts were made by the White House and NASA during the 1980s and 1990s to put forth ambitious human space exploration plans for purposes other than geopolitical supremacy. It is important to look at these proposals, why they failed to become policy and programs, and how the current Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) finally succeeded in becoming national space policy and a funded NASA program, as part of its overall space exploration program. Rovers were understood to be a part of those early proposals, if not explicitly detailed in them. Similarly, human-driven rovers were not detailed in the early phases of the VSE program, but evolved with the formal mission profile of lunar surface operations.

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