NASA is planning a project - Constellation - complete with new rockets and spacecraft, to take humans back to the moon sometime around 2020.
With the retirement of the space shuttle program in little more than a year, there will be a gap of at least five years before American astronauts can fly to orbit aboard an American craft.
Outspoken moonwalker Buzz Aldrin has a problem with that - and a proposal to reinvigorate our nation's manned space program. Now 79, Aldrin isn't soft-pedaling his criticism of NASA's vision: "A glorified rehash of what we did 40 years ago." His "Unified Space Vision" is detailed in the August issue of Popular Mechanics and can be read on the magazine's Web site. It would have Americans on Mars by 2035. Realistic? I don't know. Exciting? Absolutely!
In spite of what you may have heard, Mars is (and will remain) tiny in our sky and far away, about 150 million miles in August. That said, you can spot it in the predawn sky. Seen with the naked eye, it's just a point of light, shining at magnitude 1. Look for it in the east around 4 a.m.
The waning crescent moon will be near Mars on Aug. 15 and 16 and near Venus, east of Mars, on the 17th.
Shining at magnitude minus 4, Venus will be impossible to miss near the eastern horizon before sunrise.
Mercury can be seen near the western horizon after sunset. Shining at magnitude 0, the innermost planet won't be easy to spot in the glare of twilight. Have a look around 8:30 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.
First magnitude Saturn moves near Mercury midmonth. Both set by 8:30 p.m. at month's end. Binoculars or a small telescope will help you pick out the duo.
Jupiter is ideally positioned for viewing this month. It reaches opposition on Aug. 14. It rises around sunset and sets around sunrise. It'll be relatively high in the southern sky around midnight or 1 a.m. Its Galilean moons and atmospheric features will make lengthy observations worthwhile, since changes will be evident over a few hours and from night to night.
Distant Neptune reaches opposition three days after Jupiter and is just a few degrees away. Both are in the constellation Capricornus. You can easily spot Jupiter (magnitude minus 2.8) with the naked eye, but Neptune (magnitude 7.8) will require a scope and a current sky chart to pick it out from the star field.
Uranus (magnitude 5.8) is about 35 degrees east of Jupiter in Pisces and is easier to locate than its more distant neighbor.
The Perseid meteor shower peaks during the early hours of Aug. 12. The waning gibbous moon rises around 11 p.m. on Aug. 11 and will interfere with prime viewing. Don't be discouraged, though. The brightest "shooting stars" will still be visible, and being outside on a relatively warm summer night will be fun.
Lewis McCool gazes at stars through a 10-inch Dobsonian from his Dolores home.