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

Humans and Robots — Again

I continue my musings on this perennial topic (and its relevance to the recent Presidential announcement) in a new post at Air & Space.  Comment here, if desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, Philosophy of science, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 15 Comments

Take a Step on Another World

I have a new piece up at Air & Space on what it will be like to live and work on the Moon.  Comments welcome.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space policy, space technology | 11 Comments

Are Humans Needed on the Moon?

Apollo 17 LM Pilot and professional geologist Jack Schmitt examines a boulder at the Taurus-Littrow landing site, December, 1972

During my recent appearance on The Space Show, a caller questioned the need for people on the Moon. If teleoperated robots can be used to mine resources, manufacture useful products, and set up a lunar outpost, as I have proposed, why do we even need people on the Moon? The caller’s question touches once again on the age-old argument about the transport and support of humans in outer-space, where their presence is both mass- and power-intensive and thus, more costly. But we shortchange humanity if we fall into the trap of believing that a human presence on the Moon (or in space in general) is either not necessary or that it is only required for making repairs, or for updating equipment.

Now that returning to the Moon is in the news, “Why send humans into space at all?” will be asked, again, as it lies at the heart of a very old debate and battle about space. It is the same question that spawned the 2014 Congressionally mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences. That effort posed two “enduring questions”: How far can humans go and what can they accomplish when they get there? But how can anyone truly know the answers to those questions or make sweeping pronouncements about them? Fortunately, because we’ve had 50 years of human space missions, we have demonstrable evidence about the “usefulness” and promise of humans living and working in space.

In December, we’ll celebrate the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission of 1972 – the first (and so far, only) mission to fly a professional geologist to the Moon – Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt. The Apollo 17 landing site was a complex, multiple objectives site whose complete and thorough understanding and characterization was not likely within the allotted 3-days there. Nonetheless, Apollo 17 crewmembers Commander Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt traversed and explored the Taurus-Littrow valley “from one end to the other” (as Gene would say from the Moon), and where they made several significant discoveries. They found highland rocks of extreme antiquity, almost as old as the Moon itself (4.6 billion years). They sampled large boulders that represented the remnants of ancient collisions that created the large, circular mare basins more than 3.9 billion years ago. They discovered orange and black soil at Shorty crater, which later was found to be composed of tiny beads of glass created when lava generated 100s of km deep within the lunar interior erupted and sprayed into space and fell back to the surface. And they collected pieces of material thrown out from one of the youngest large craters on the Moon, Tycho, more than 2200 km distant and whose impact occurred “only” 100 million years ago. Eight hundred and forty pounds of lunar rock and soil samples were returned to Earth by American astronauts over six lunar missions. These samples have given a tangible, invaluable context to scientists studying the Moon remotely, for over 48 years.

Could autonomous machines or those under remote control have carried out this complete and thorough exploration of a complex geologic landing site? Most scientists involved in the Apollo program would argue that machines could not have accomplished what the Apollo 17 crew managed to do. Certainly, scientists studying Mars via rovers have often wished that a thinking, walking and talking human could replace that machine. Productive geological fieldwork requires more than the ability to make measurements and pick up rocks – it is important to sample the right rocks, but also to put visual and mental data into a conceptual framework that guides the geologist toward reconstructing the history and processes of a planet. Of course, “grab samples” can be informative when the site is geologically simple and the rocks have a clear context. An example of this might be collecting samples from the youngest lava flow on the Moon. A scoop of fresh regolith from such a site would most certainly contain chips of lava from that flow, allowing for the determination of its composition, age and the nature of its source region. But complex areas, where comprehensive studies demand a real time, in-depth, working knowledge of complicated geologic “mixes,” require humans who can recognize and mentally process what they see before them.

Fieldwork is a complex discipline, whereby an experienced geologist maps an area and chooses samples – not just rocks picked up at random, but rather carefully chosen – significant and representative samples that inform us about process and history. In any natural setting, literally billions of bits of data could be collected. And that’s what a machine does – it collects data. A human field scientist also collects data, but they also are able to high-grade it by collecting only the most significant and relevant data. It takes extensive study, then training and experience in the field, to be able to recognize the significant and distinguish it from the trivial – to see the big picture. We often remark on the Mars Exploration Rovers for their accomplishments, yet for all the data collected, we still cannot draw a simple geologic cross-section of those landing sites, and we still do not know the origin of many of the rocks at the site (igneous or sedimentary). A human geologist would have obtained this important information after a few hours of fieldwork. The mass- and power-intensive humans give a big return on their investment.

In addition to fieldwork, humans possess other qualities that machines do not. The ability of people to recognize, diagnose and solve equipment malfunctions has been proven time and again throughout the history of the space program. The Apollo 17 crew not only explored the valley of Taurus-Littrow, they also deployed an experiment package that required careful installation and alignment. They fabricated and replaced the fender of their lunar rover by using the famous stand-by of all terrestrial repairmen, duct tape and plastic maps (if the rover fender had not been replaced, the dust kicked up by the rover wheels would have soon coated all electronic equipment, leading to overheating and termination of the surface exploration). During the Skylab program (1973), repair work by the crew saved the crippled space station after it was damaged during launch. Literally heroic efforts by Pete Conrad and his crewmates Paul Weitz and Joe Kerwin allowed not only habitation of the overheated Skylab, which was then used by two subsequent crews, but literally saved the entire program. When it was discovered after launch that the mirror of the Hubble Telescope had been ground incorrectly, the crew of Shuttle Mission STS-61 were sent on a mission to put corrective lens on the telescope, again saving the entire program. The assembly and numerous repairs and maintenance of the International Space Station (ISS) require the use of both human and robotic assets to complete, without which the program certainly would not have survived. And this new era in space spawned an explosion of engineers and scientists, and dominated our culture with space movies, architecture, fashion and technology.

Fortunately for humanity, people are required in space to do what only people can do (while also dreaming up new things to do and new ways to do them) – tasks requiring experience and knowledge guided by reasoned judgment and imagination. The ability to act and then learn from such action is critical. People will always innovate solutions for seemingly intractable problems that may arise. A combination of fine-scale manual dexterity and expert, informed knowledge and the ability to react, creates an ease of capabilities in space unachievable by machines alone. The template created during the assembly of the ISS – in which people using robotic machines assembled a complex spacecraft in orbit – is the most likely and productive path for future space activity of all kinds.

Do we need people on the Moon? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Humans bring unique capabilities that are needed to accomplish new things – unknowable things, things that will enhance our lives on Earth. Studies that conclude that only robots should conduct space and surface operations – as people require protective equipment and habitats – is shortsighted and harmful to a vibrant, intelligent, and inquisitive society. Both humans, and the machines they create to assist them, are required for success in this grand adventure.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, Philosophy of science, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 23 Comments

Jack Schmitt’s Lunar Memories

The famous night launch of the Saturn V carrying the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7, 2017

Apollo 17 Lunar Module Pilot and Geologist Harrison H. (Jack) Schmitt has posted a new item on his web site: the beginning of a reminiscence of his historic flight, which departed for the Moon 44 years and 11 months ago today (December 7, 1972).  Although only one chapter is posted so far, it is a great read, describing the busy last month of training, simulation and constant work before the launch of an Apollo crew.  I urge readers of this blog to visit his site and enjoy Chapter 4 – Thirty Days and Counting…  I eagerly look forward to the next installment.

On a related note, my good friend Bill Mellberg, who passed away this year, wrote an essay recalling his attendance at the launch of Apollo 17 (which includes a guest appearance by Wernher von Braun).  Bill’s essay can be found at Jack’s web site, HERE.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space technology, Space transportation | 4 Comments

Why We Go To The Moon – A Mission Statement

I have a new blog post up at Air & Space on the need for a “mission statement” for our return to the lunar surface.  I advocated this during the VSE days, but lost that argument.  I believe this to be an important issue — previous NASA efforts at lunar return were marked by confusion and aimlessness.  Please comment, if you feel so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, Philosophy of science, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 17 Comments