An Architecture for Direct Lunar Return Using SLS and Orion

I have been asked recently by several people to lay out an architecture for direct lunar return.  This includes what is required (e.g. LOP-G or no LOP-G?), how the pieces fit together and the likely outcome of such a program.  I find that almost all of these issues are addressed in a paper that Tony Lavoie and I wrote two years ago:

The Purpose of Human Spaceflight and a Lunar Architecture to Explore the Potential of Resource Utilization

This 2016 paper (updating an architecture written 6 years ago ) details how to fulfill the 2018 Presidential Directive to return to the Moon.  It also addresses how to use the existing SLS and Orion programs to enhance the plan.

As you read it, please note how this paper addresses many questions and talking points being bounced back and forth in the current national debate about the U.S. space program.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Will Lunar Return Harm the Moon?

I have some thoughts at the Air and Space site about the possible environmental impact of lunar development.  Have a look and comment, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology | 6 Comments

A Foothold, Not Just Footprints

New post up at Air and Space, where I look at the rationale and reasons for lunar return.  Are we on track to do the right thing?

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space policy, space technology | 7 Comments

Jim Bridenstine confirmed as NASA Administrator

New post up at Air & Space discussing today’s confirmation of Rep. Jim Bridenstine as the 12th Administrator of NASA and some of the challenges he faces in plotting a course back to the Moon.  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 15 Comments

Have We Lost the Moon?

The LOP-G in orbit around the Moon. Look, but don’t touch.

There was real excitement in the lunar community last fall when Vice President Mike Pence announced, during a meeting of the reconstituted National Space Council, that the next step in human spaceflight would be our return to the Moon. Advocates for this direction felt enormous relief; at last, reason had returned to the strategic planning of NASA’s human program – a program stalled for the last decade, merely marking time. True enough, the new Orion spacecraft is being built and the new SLS launch system development continues; but with only one boilerplate flight of same (and that launched on an existing Delta-IV Heavy, not the SLS), many felt certain the Orion program was trapped in development hell.

The space policy directive put forth by the new Administration, one of returning to the Moon’s surface, was long overdue. It appeared that despite programmatic delays, a return to the Moon was back in the cards. But six months later, that direction, along with all of our earlier optimism, is now in question.

The first and biggest problem is that a year-and-half into President Trump’s administration, NASA still has no permanent Administrator. The nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a superb selection from any honest perspective, has been stymied in the Senate by the machinations of Florida’s two senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio. Due to the narrow Republican majority in the Senate, the actions of these two have had an overstated impact on the nomination voting process. So, while Rep. Bridenstine’s confirmation vote is held up in the Senate, NASA has been unable to initiate the space policy direction called for by the Administration, because, in Beltway terms, it can do nothing, except continue to execute the existing program of record.

The current Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot is retiring this month and no doubt another interim chief will be designated. Their job will be to see that the agency keeps running: whether towards somewhere, or in place, is irrelevant. Thus, plans made during the Obama administration, no matter how idiotic or irrelevant to our national strategic goals, are kept, adapted or simply, re-branded.

And that brings us to the development and deployment of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG, a.k.a., LOP-G, Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway). This piece of space hardware is what’s left of the Obama-era Asteroid Redirect Mission, a plan almost universally derided by the space community, to capture an asteroid boulder, bring it to cislunar space and let a manned Orion vehicle study it. This bizarre scheme was adopted once it was found that a near-Earth asteroid suitable for a human visit did not exist. Aside from the utter pointlessness of such a mission, it seems we are on track to take the manned space development budget and spend it on this “Mini-Me” space station, one that cannot (other than for short periods) be permanently inhabited because of resupply problems, hard radiation environment and other considerations.

NASA has easily morphed the ARM into the DSG because they are essentially the same spacecraft – a solar electric propulsion (SEP) module, a habitation module and a docking collar. The LOP-G will be placed in what is called a rectilinear halo orbit, an elliptical path varying between 7000 and 70000 above the Moon. The idea is to make the LOP-G a test Mars transfer vehicle, in that SEP is being considered as a way to move cargo between Earth and Mars. As a staging node for going to the lunar surface, the LOP-G leaves a great deal to be desired, as it has both a high propulsive cost (greater than 2.4 km/s) and serious phasing problems for lunar arrival and departure. How does this square with the Trump administration’s call to return to the Moon?

Because (wait for it)…..LOP-G is in orbit around the Moon!

With this “wool-over-their-eyes” program, the agency has many believing that they have dutifully answered Vice-President Pence’s bold challenge for lunar return. And, mirabile dictu, it’s a “twofer,” as they’ve managed to keep their eye on the “real prize” – Mars.

Alas, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. In fact, the LOP-G answers neither lunar nor martian mission needs particularly well. The location of the platform does not allow easy access to the lunar surface, and certainly not for a single-stage vehicle. Some independent means to get cargo and (probably) crew down to the Moon will have to be developed, which means that the LOP-G is irrelevant to lunar return. Mars mission architectures are in way too early a state of development to determine if the LOP-G is useful for them and likely to be fraught with additional complications. It would be much simpler, in each case, to assemble what you need in low Earth orbit and then go the destination of choice.

But NASA wants the DSG/LOP-G and so, there it is. But wait! How has NASA – an agency “operating” without a new Administrator for the past 18 months – continued to function and set policy direction without the Trump Administration’s pick at the helm? Easy – the continuing and permanent bureaucracy of the agency determines what policy or program it wants, slow-rolls any newly proposed changes or alterations to the previous policy, and eventually, what was in (slow) motion, stays in (exceedingly slow) motion – implemented by default, with the change agents eventually having to give up and go home. We are watching this process in action now.

Hang on – I thought that the newly reconstituted National Space Council was supposed to provide educated, adult supervision to the NASA bureaucrats? Surely, if the Vice President announces a new policy of lunar return, the Council will monitor NASA management and assure that the agency complies with that directive. In this case, it appears that such has not occurred. Or, more precisely, it appears that for some reason, the Council is convinced that NASA is complying with that directive. They certainly claim to be. New artwork of the LOP-G always shows the Moon in the background, so we must be going to the Moon, right? However, note the composition in the image above – the Moon, always in the background. Although I hesitate to conclude that the Council is deficient here, they appear unable to see through this slight-of-hand in order to direct difficult, pointed questions to the minions generating this smokescreen.

The biggest indicator that NASA has no interest in going to the lunar surface came with the recent announcement that the launch of a small mission called Resource Prospector – a mission designed to land at one of the Moon’s poles and sample polar volatiles – has been delayed, once again, this time until 2022. This relatively simple mission would be our first look at lunar polar ice, a mission critical to the idea of developing and using the resources of the Moon. So with this “delay,” it appears there is no plan for NASA to locate and examine lunar resources in order to learn and understand their potential implications for America’s national economy and its security. True enough, small commercial missions may get there before 2022, but we’re talking about a supposed national priority and the importance of being back on the Moon at a time when other countries are already moving ahead in this important cislunar arena.

When the White House asked for cost estimates for lunar return, no effort was made to realistically estimate the costs to develop a new lunar lander. My sources tell me that the old Augustine Committee/Aerospace Corporation estimates of 2009 were hauled out in response. I have discussed previously why that effort was seriously flawed and deficient; those cost estimates are from the 2007-2009 Altair effort and have no more relation to the real cost of new lander development than the cost of a B-17 has to a Space Shuttle.

Is there a solution to this on-going space policy problem, one that involves vital national interests? If Rep. Jim Bridenstine were to be swiftly confirmed and allowed to take office, would the ship correct its course? There is good reason to suspect that even in the case of that happy eventuality, due to the long delay in getting Bridenstine confirmed, we will still waste time and money on the LOP-G. The agency has convinced the White House and Congress that LOP-G is the first step towards going to the Moon, despite the falsity of their claim.

That said, a strong hand in the Administrator’s chair could help redirect some of the more egregious missteps in direction of the agency. A vigorous program of robotic prospecting missions to the lunar poles to gather key strategic data for the ice deposits could be instituted for a modest amount of money. Such data are crucial to almost any future lunar surface operations (and other eventual space destinations), at least to those who understand and are concerned about creating a new, affordable, extendable and productive spaceflight capability.

Have we lost the Moon? Perhaps not, but we are pretty close to it. Message to National Space Council: Please take the necessary time and initiative needed in order to clearly and independently understand the situation, then fulfill your mandate and hold NASA’s feet to the fire!

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space industry, space policy | 36 Comments

The New NASA Budget and “Hurrying” Back to the Moon

The new direction. This time, they got the emphasis right.

When new budgets are issued, our first instinct is to see how much we were allocated and then moan about why it isn’t enough. It’s no different with the new NASA budget, and so the predictable responses have started. Budgets are statements of intent and philosophy by administrations. They are changed and modified by Congress during the appropriations process, one that involves a good deal of give and take on both sides. In this case, NASA’s new budget affirms the White House’s intent to return to the Moon, specifically by creating a new program of lunar robotic missions in preparation for permanent human return.

Details are sparse, largely because NASA has no permanent Administrator at the moment and thus, no senior management team to devise an architecture for lunar return. The ridiculous delay in confirming Jim Bridenstine as the new Administrator greatly hinders the agency’s ability to prepare and present a coherent, logical rationale with their budget proposal. The current document is largely a placeholder, designed to indicate general intent rather than advocate any specific implementation. So any talk about the Administration not moving fast enough getting us back to the Moon is moot. We’ve wasted a lot of time and money starting lunar programs, only to have them killed before they could get started. This administration appears willing to try and get it right this time.

The biggest news seems to be President Trump’s desire to end U.S. financial support for the operation and use of the International Space Station by 2025. But rather than simply “pulling the plug” on the program as President Obama did to Project Constellation in 2010, the new plan calls for a “seamless transition” to commercial and/or international operation of the ISS by that date. Many are skeptical of the expression of such intent, but at least this issue has been given some serious thought.

The International Space Station (ISS/Station) – continuously operated and inhabited since November 2000 – was not intended to be an endless NASA program. Originally, a space station in low Earth orbit (LEO) was conceived as a stepping-stone to destinations in space beyond LEO. The original von Braun architecture was shuttle-station-Moon tug-Mars mission, done in that order. The logic of the von Braun plan was that each step into space enabled the next one. It was further envisioned that once emplaced, no asset would be abandoned, although left unanswered was exactly what entity would be financially responsible for an operational waypoint.

That stepping-stone concept was largely abandoned during the 1993 re-design of the ISS, when the station was planned for a 51.6° inclination orbit to accommodate launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Russian spaceport. Due to the difficulty of conducting cislunar voyages from this orbit, plans for a reusable space tug (orbital transfer vehicle) to be based at Station were dropped. The focus shifted from space transportation and exploration to materials science and the study of microgravity and human health in space. The use of Station as a transportation node for deep space missions was eliminated, effectively ending the manned “National Space Transportation System.” Thus, ISS became not a stepping-stone, but an end-point destination and it has served that role for the last 20 years. From that perspective alone, designation of the Moon as the next step is long overdue.

Beyond these considerations, commercialization of the ISS is the logical next step after initiation of the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs. When the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) was unveiled in 2004, some quarters immediately began planning an “exit strategy” for the proposed lunar base. So why is it now such a stretch to plan an exit strategy for the ISS? We have learned much about operations, assembly and maintenance of large systems and spacecraft, and about human health in microgravity. So in that sense, ISS has served some of its role as an exploration “stepping-stone.” We have demonstrated what humans and machines in space can do, and now it’s time to pass this phase on to commercial interests and focus on the logical, constructive next step – the Moon.

For space science, the new budget both giveth and taketh. In contrast to some hysteria, Earth science has not been decimated – continued mission development, launch and operations are supported to the tune of $1.78 billion. Four missions are terminated: three climate science missions in development and one operational spacecraft (DSCOVR). The latter has operated for the last three years and has already met its core mission goals. There has been much gnashing of teeth about the proposed termination of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the next generation space telescope. The astrophysics community must accept some responsibility for that, as the James Webb Space Telescope, originally to cost a little less than $2 billion and launch by 2011, now costs over $10 billion (and counting) and a has a launch scheduled for mid-2019, set a poor example of technical and managerial oversight. Lest you think that I unfairly pick on other sciences here, note that my field (planetary science) has its own white whale in the form of the Mars Sample Return (MSR), a mission whose cost would most certainly exceed $10 billion. The desirement of more than 30 years of studies, MSR is barely possible technically and has held questionable scientific value since the late 1980s, when we recognized that certain meteorites come from Mars. Still, the MSR is provided study money in the new budget.

Another criticism of the new budget is the vague timeline for lunar return. Here we must recall how the now cancelled Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM), proposed by the last administration as a substitute for lunar return, not only flew in the face of bipartisan Congressional support for a sustained lunar return, but also consumed valuable time and money, thus delaying plans for a sustained space transportation system using the Moon’s resources. So any suggestion that we’re not moving back to the Moon fast enough with this budget is laughably inappropriate.

Possibly the most serious issue in terms of the new direction is the retention of the Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a program of questionable value for lunar return. This facility is a morphed version of ARM, designed to give the appearance of accomplishment on the “Journey to Mars”. With a need to give the new Orion spacecraft a destination it can reach, NASA plans to place the DSG in what is called a “rectilinear halo orbit” around the Moon. The DSG is thus both “in cislunar space” and “near the Moon,” with the current NASA management claiming that these properties mean that the DSG supports the Trump Administration’s goal of lunar return. In fact, both the location and configuration of the DSG make it irrelevant to that goal. The DSG orbit makes lunar surface access marginal and difficult – it is too far from the Moon, resulting in long transit times and large delta-v (energy) requirements to access the surface. The current strawman design for DSG is that of a “mini-me” ISS – a habitat module, a docking collar, and some solar arrays. We will learn nothing from this configuration that we do not already know from the ISS experience. So don’t blame new the budget for why we’re not “hurrying back” to the Moon.

That said, DSG could become a useful piece of a cislunar transportation infrastructure if it were moved closer to the Moon (a few hundred km high polar orbit). Placed there, it could serve as a transportation hub for a reusable lunar lander and the cislunar crew transport. Ultimately, it could become a lunar orbital propellant depot, with the ability to accept and distribute lunar products. Such a facility would become part of the permanent transportation infrastructure of cislunar space and play its important role in stimulating commercial space development

The new budget also proposes to eliminate NASA’s Office of Education and move that money to exploration efforts. Though widely criticized, I think this is actually a good move. NASA has spent untold millions for “education” over the years, although these efforts have not resulted in any noticeable increase in public support for space. And there are more unemployed aerospace engineers and scientists now than there are actually working in the field. The idea that NASA must have an Education Office to create the next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) students is ludicrous – the biggest influx of new technical people inspired by space exploration came during Apollo, when the agency’s outreach efforts were minimal and primitive in the extreme but we were flying to the Moon. I was one of those students and I didn’t need a NASA education program to get me excited about science and space. To inspire the next generation of STEM workers, we need to actually do inspiring things in human space exploration – real and ongoing missions that show there are actual roles and careers in space for their generation.

The good news is that the administration’s budget emphasizes the Moon as the goal. With limited funds in our national purse for discretionary spending, the amount allotted to NASA for space exploration shows this administration favors a strong national manned space program. We can always wish for more money. Perhaps now is the opportune time for NASA leadership to show that it can budget $20 billion a year into an incremental and sustainable return to the Moon.  With a return to the Moon, we can test the viability of lunar resources, science will flourish (e.g., astronomers will be able to see deeply back into time, sheltered from Earth’s noise on the Moon’s far side), and we will create a permanent spacefaring system, thereby, finally bringing the Moon and cislunar space into our economic sphere. It isn’t about “hurrying” somewhere, or the “size” of budgets, but seizing the opportunity to start and remain on a path that sees us reclaim our leadership role in space exploration and space development.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 15 Comments

The Lunar Anthropic Principle

New post over at Air & Space on what I am calling the “Lunar Anthropic Principle.”  Is humanity destined to live on the Moon?  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Philosophy of science, space policy | 9 Comments

Polar “Lava Tubes”

An abstract at the recent “Landed Science for Landed Missions Workshop” (and subsequent press release) from the SETI Institute claiming the discovery of lava tubes near the north pole of the Moon has gotten a lot of media play.  The problem is that what is being said and written about this “discovery” is wrong on almost every level.  I discuss what’s wrong with it in a new post over at Air & Space.  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 21 Comments

How Much Water is on the Moon?

I have a new post up at Air & Space that discusses the techniques used to sense water remotely and the amounts of water that may be found in the lunar polar regions.  This post was motivated in part by some of the ignorant comments on lunar water that I see on space chat boards.  Comment here if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 14 Comments

Inconstant Moon

Screen shot of the Moon phase tool from Goddard Space Flight Center.

I’d like to point readers’ attention to this wonderful visualization tool produced by the Scientific Visualization Studio at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Project.  It’s a program that reproduces the Moon’s phase, position in its orbit, distance from the Earth, and libration state.  You can bookmark the page and visit the site to enter a date and time for any time during 2018.  Or you can download an MPEG movie and keep the information on your own computer.

Enjoy!  And  a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space technology | 8 Comments