The aerospace newspaper Space News recounted an exchange that took place at the International Astronautical Conference in Jerusalem, Israel recently that proved to be cringe-worthy for observers of space policy. During a panel discussion at the conference, European Space Agency’s new director-general, Johann-Dietrich Woerner presented an idea he has been touting for some time called a “moon village.” The idea is that various countries would come together to establish a lunar base, each bringing in “their special ideas, their special competence.” The moon village would be a center of science and commerce, developing techniques for resource management and testing technology designed for deep space exploration, including to Mars.

Sitting next to Woerner, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was decidedly cool to the moon village idea, at least where the space agency is concerned. “The U.S. does not have to be the country that says, ‘We’re going, follow us,’” he said, according to the article. “We’re all going back to the surface of the moon. But it’s just that the United States has no intention of leading that effort. We will support and be along with anybody that goes.”

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How an international return to the moon would work with the United States, the only country to have landed astronauts on the lunar surface, not in a leadership role is unclear. Ironically, Bolden reiterated his disinterest about the time NASA and a number of other countries celebrated the 15th anniversary of permanent human habitation on the International Space Station. ISS has accomplished a great many things, not the least of which has been to prove what a group of countries, with the United States in the lead, can accomplish when they work together in space.

The idea that the United States would bypass the moon was first articulated by President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaPatagonia files suit against Trump cuts to Utah monuments Former Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report Eighth Franken accuser comes forward as Dems call for resignation MORE in an April 15, 2010 speech made at the Kennedy Space Center. While announcing what became the Journey to Mars program, the president addressed the moon in a tone dripping with disdain.

“Now, I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before. Buzz has been there. There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

Buzz Aldrin, who is a supporter of the Journey to Mars, was in the hand-picked audience.

President Obama’s “been there, done that” attitude toward the moon has colored space exploration policy ever since, even in the teeth of the advice of outside experts, such as a group at MIT, who have counseled that a return to the moon would not only be complimentary to the Journey to Mars, but vital.

A dim glimmer of hope took place at the IAC when another American government agency expressed interest in participating in the European moon village. George Nield, Federal Aviation Administration associate administrator for commercial space transportation, has suggested that commercial enterprises should also be included in the project, should it ever translate from an idea to an actual funded project. “There would, he argued, be a number of roles companies could play in an international lunar base, from providing goods and services to building habitats and other infrastructure.” Furthermore, a number of private companies, Moon Express comes to mind, are interested in exploiting lunar resources. The FAA may engage the ESA directly to work on the moon village concept with commercial entities.

As a practical matter, the moon village is going to remain an idea that will just be talked about at conferences unless the United States takes a leadership role. Only the United States has the resources, the technology, and the experience to mount such an undertaking as a return to the moon. The news that the Americans are going back to the moon would serve to galvanize other countries, the European Union included, and motivate them to join in such an effort. It worked with the International Space Station. It can work with the moon village.

Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has just published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.