Last week, Charlie Bolden, head of NASA stated that he didn't think that it was likely that NASA would be heading back to the moon within his lifetime. Naturally, this has lead to a good amount of space nerd rage, even as NASA works on other projects that are arguably more useful in the long term. While I can definitely understand the frustration, I can't really support it.
The moon has long held a fascination for people, which since it is our closest and second most visible celestial object is certainly understandable. A moon base has long been viewed as a stepping stone to further space exploration by science fiction writers and forward thinkers, but somehow it just never happened. Certainly if the political will had been there we could have established something, but other things distracted us as a country and it never materialized. We live now in a world where amateurs are sending everything from cameras to toy train engines up to the edge of space, and multiple private companies are developing their own means of reaching space. More and more countries are planning robotic missions to the moon, and there is even talk of manned missions to come. The question becomes then, would a new mission to the moon by NASA be one of research, or one of pride.
There is certainly more to be discovered on the moon, and establishing a base there would provide valuable information about creating outposts on other worlds. I just don't see it as something NASA needs to do. The primary focus of space exploration up until now has been mostly research. We as a world have benefited from what NASA and the other space agencies around the globe have done reaching outside our small sphere, both from our better understanding of our universe and from the technical innovations that it took to get there. We've been to the moon, we've gotten samples, demonstrated the effects of low gravity, been there, done that. Others are getting ready to do it, lets not duplicate efforts if we don't have to.
What NASA's currently up to excites me more then any moon mission would. They're working on sending out a probe that would capture an asteroid and tow it into the far Lagrange point of the Earth and the Moon, (L2). This should provide a stable place to park the asteroid, give us a close enough spot that we can easily send manned missions to it, but be far enough away that it would be difficult for any nutjobs to use it against the Earth. There are challenges to be overcome, but that's what NASA's always been about. My understanding is that they're hoping to launch sometime in 2017, but this early on that should be considered a rough date since a suitable asteroid would need to be located once the project is closer to completion.
The L2 point is one of the best possible locations for expanding outwards from our Earth-Lunar system, a station there like the ISS in orbit around Earth now could serve as an observation point, fuel depot, and relay station for various projects. Practice sending manned missions there, as well as providing ourselves with a potential source of resources out there seems like a win-win situation to me. There certainly risks involved, and there are sure to be some hiccups along the way, but this could be a good solid step forward as our friends, and even our rivals, help fill in some of the blanks left behind by some of our previous ones. Learn from them as they learn from us, and everyone wins. Duplicate efforts by other Government and independent organizations and we simply throw away money better spent elsewhere.