There’s always a well-attended NASA night at LPSC, and tonight was no exception. Perhaps it was because Laurie Leshin, the new deputy associate administrator for the human space flight programme, was giving her first public talk. Leshin comes from a science background, and so she was speaking to ‘her people’. Everyone wanted to know how the big strategic changes at NASA, revealed in President Obama’s budget request, would affect research, particularly the lunar programme.
While a lot of the LPI crowd is grumbling about the cancellation of Constellation, they should be focusing on some new money that the human programme is bringing to the table: $3 billion over five years for “robotic precursor” missions. Leshin said that two of these missions, which could scout the Moon or an asteroid for resources, would start in 2011. Leshin later told me that Jay Jenkins at NASA headquarters is heading up an team of civil servants who are sketching out the process by which these missions and destinations will be selected.
Dave Kring of LPI asked Leshin a great question: Would the programme consider adding a sample return capability to one of these precursor missions? “I don’t think it’s out of the question,” she replied. It’s an interesting idea: two of the three finalists within Planetary Science’s New Frontiers competition are sample return missions — one to an asteroid and one to the South Pole Aitken basin of the Moon (the third is a Venus lander). What if the human programme could essentially pay for a top-priority New Frontiers science mission? It would be similar to the way LRO is doing all sorts of great fundamental science, even though the LRO scientists have to occasionally pay lip service to hunting for human resources.