NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) announced today that they will be collaborating on a joint mission that will send astronauts into lunar orbit for the first time in 45 years!
The mission, named Orion, is currently planned for a 2017 launch date and will involve a NASA-built mission capsule attached to a refitted ESA Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV). This initial flyby of the moon will be an unmanned mission, but if it is successful, four astronauts are planned for the followup mission in 2021.
[ Related: NASA-ESA partnership on deep-space capsule a first ]
As reported by Stuart Clark at The Guardian, the mission is drawing some criticism for being too cautious.
Given that NASA's Apollo program sent nine manned missions to the Moon between 1968 and 1972 — Apollo 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 & 17, of which all but 8, 10 and 13 involved landing on the surface — these new plans do seem to be a bit underwhelming. I will grant them that NASA's budget has certainly changed since the heady days of early lunar exploration, but at the same time, I hope that this is leading towards something bigger, rather than just a token flyby of the moon to show that we can still do it.
I will say, though, that this mission animation is certainly pretty:
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