Eclipse Happens

I have a new post up over at Air & Space discussing the upcoming total solar eclipse, mainly as a vehicle to proselytize for lunar return.  Enjoy the spectacle next Monday!

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 7 Comments

A Timely and Excellent Production: Destination Moon

A new documentary about lunar return from CuriosityStream

The internet video streaming channel CuriosityStream has released a documentary about a return to the Moon produced by Chris Haws.  The five-part, hour-long production nicely outlines the rationale and approach for going back to the Moon to find, develop and use its resources.

I was asked to participate in this production, where I discuss the aspects of lunar return on camera. I am very pleased with the final product.  The graphics are very well done.

You can preview the five parts at the CuriosityStream web site:

Chapter 1: A Matter of Gravity

Chapter 2: Water – The Big Question

Chapter 3: From Outpost to Colony

Chapter 4: Surviving……And Thriving?

Chapter 5: Mars Direct or Moon First

A separate review of the series can be found HERE.

While I received no financial benefit from the production, it certainly advances my own (and others’) firm belief in the value of the Moon to humanity’s future in space.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 18 Comments

Ashes and Water

Lots of media coverage this week on newly analyzed spectra showing elevated amounts of water in lunar dark mantling (pyroclastic) ash deposits.  I discuss the new finding and what it might mean in a new post over at Air & Space.  Comment here if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 13 Comments

Apollo: The Glory and the Curse

The mighty Saturn V, off to the Moon.

As we approach the anniversary of the first landing on the Moon (48 years on July 20), it is traditional for space opinion writers to wistfully look back on that lost “Golden Age” when humans ventured beyond low Earth orbit and set foot on another world. This lament for the past is particularly acute within NASA, whose entire self-image is wrapped around a romanticized vision of a tough, risk-taking, and technically competent organization. “Failure is not an option!” Just ignore the fact that Gene Kranz never said that, at least while the mission was underway (he did use it much later as a book title). Hollywood writes history these days, not the other way around.

Simultaneously, the Apollo missions to the Moon are the acme of American space achievement and the anchor weighing it down. And it is this paradoxical status that makes the age of Apollo both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because it showed us what was possible in space, yet also a curse, for convincing many that the Apollo approach and architecture remains the Holy Grail for great accomplishment in spaceflight. I submit that we must continue to honor and celebrate the glory, but now we must throw off the curse.

Let us briefly recall why America went to the Moon. The effort was not undertaken to develop the means for human spaceflight, or to settle the Solar System, or to explore the wonders of the cosmos. It was done in our bid to achieve a difficult, technical task ahead of the Soviet Union. By 1961, that communist nation had racked up a number of impressive space “firsts,” including the first satellite, the first man in space, and the first probe to the Moon. Hoping to challenge the Soviets on a very public stage and win, the United States considered several different complex technical projects (including President John F. Kennedy’s personal favorite – the desalination of seawater). Space was the chosen playing field. Though the Soviets were ahead in building large rockets and could possibly build an Earth-orbiting space station, neither nation had yet mastered the ability to land a man on the Moon.

Kennedy asked NASA to devise an approach that would give the United States its best chance to beat the USSR to the Moon. Although NASA had many imaginative and competent engineers at that time, its spiritual godfather and guru was Wernher von Braun. In the 1950s, von Braun had devised an elaborate architecture for spaceflight and published it in a series of articles (with contributions from other space experts) in Collier’s, a popular national magazine. This architecture was incremental and cumulative – the development of pieces for a space transportation system that gradually but continuously expanded human reach into space. Those pieces were: Earth-to-orbit rockets, a space station in Earth orbit, a “Moon tug” to travel back and forth between Earth orbit and the Moon, and finally a manned Mars spacecraft. Each piece was optimized to serve its particular function, and to work in tandem with the other pieces – incremental and cumulative, whereby they would collectively permit the movement of people and cargo between Earth, Moon and the planets.

The von Braun template was a no-go, as the gauntlet thrown down by President Kennedy came with a deadline: “before this decade is out.”  But building an infrastructure for a permanent, spacefaring system requires time, and in a race, time is not a free variable. Hence, NASA instead developed an architecture that launched everything needed to travel to the Moon and back with a single (or at most, double) launch. This architecture required a mega-heavy lift booster, one capable of hurling over 100 metric tons to LEO. The subsequently developed Saturn-Apollo system was truly an engineering marvel – one that brilliantly completed its assigned task. Some within NASA thought they might continue using this newly developed Apollo-Saturn hardware to explore the Moon and go to Mars. But the Apollo system was handcrafted and thus, cost much more than the nation was willing to spend on space hardware. In a bid to make spaceflight both cheaper and routine, decision makers turned to the development of a reusable Space Shuttle.

For its designers, the Shuttle was considered to be the first piece of the original von Braun architecture: shuttle, station, Moon tug, Mars mission. Hence, the Shuttle program was given the official name “Space Transportation System (STS),” as it was believed that Shuttle would be the first piece of this new, incremental spaceflight system. Though routine flight to and from LEO was achieved, the operation of the Shuttle was more difficult than imagined and the cost of spaceflight remained high. After the Challenger accident in 1987, the STS label was banished. But more than a simple name was lost – the central idea of developing an incremental, cumulative spacefaring system also disappeared.

When the goal of a return to the Moon and a Mars mission was announced by President George H.W. Bush in 1989, NASA responded to that challenge with what was essentially a large-scale version of the von Braun architecture (The 90-Day Study). This effort was ridiculed and derided, especially after its supposed total, end-to-end cost was leaked to the press ($600 billion over 30 years, about $20 billion per year on average). Invariably, the contrast was drawn between the then-existent space program of record – the “incremental” Shuttle-Station effort, which had run into multiple technical, programmatic and financial difficulties, and the “all-up” Apollo program, which had achieved great things quickly in the distant past. More firmly than ever, the sense of having lost our way from the previous “golden age” took hold in the space community and it has never departed.

This vague nostalgia for Apollo is especially true inside the agency, which recognizes that it’s lost the sheen of glory it once possessed – proudly working inside buildings where vestiges of the heroes and hardware of that time are enshrined and heralded. NASA is an agency revered due to the great accomplishment of the Apollo program, but because of the long passage of time, it does not appear to comprehend what it took to achieve that vision. Not only did the Apollo program have a clear goal with a deadline but it also drew on an aerospace technical and industrial infrastructure that no longer exists. Hence, we get absurd pronouncements about a fantasy “Journey to Mars,” a program for which there is no technical approach, no fiscal means, and no political will to undertake. Rather than embracing a workable architecture that focuses on building an incremental system fueled by lunar resources – one that could eventually take us to many destinations in deep space – they fixate on the Apollo template to send people to Mars, a “launch it all from Earth” spacecraft system that (they believe) will re-capture the magic and glory of that distant era. This fixation has taken us nowhere and will continue to take us nowhere.

The “curse” of Apollo is not that we once went to the Moon and now cannot, or even the way that we did it, but rather the notion that, because Apollo is the only deep space approach that has been successful, it remains the best way to access deep space. Despite the fact that the original notion behind the development of Shuttle as the first piece of a “space transportation system” had a lot of merit, we continue to plan for a series of launches that send expendable spacecraft to Mars in attempts to resurrect that Apollo-like paradigm of “design, build, launch, use and discard.” That approach is not a sustainable one as evidenced by the fact that it was not sustained, despite the immense good will generated by and for a strong space program.

In the current NASA human spaceflight program, initial flights are scheduled to occur within the next couple of years. The Orion-SLS stack is yet another version of the Apollo template, a re-imagining of the cancelled Project Constellation – built largely because the Congress was concerned that a national capability (the Space Shuttle) was being discarded and that no non-governmental replacement was evident. These are entirely defensible grounds for developing a new spaceflight system, but now the nation is confronted with a decision: Where shall we go and what shall we do with this new spacecraft? And having paid for its development, are we now willing to pay the costs for its operation?

The core SLS vehicle puts 70 metric tons into LEO and could quickly emplace the cornerstone elements (e.g., transfer nodes and stages, spacecraft, landers) of a cislunar transportation system in space. This would be the best use of the SLS system as it is already optimized for cislunar missions. Moreover, the Orion spacecraft with its multi-week dwell capability will be useful for our initial return to cislunar space. But Orion, with its water landing and semi-disposable architecture, cannot be the means by which we establish a permanent space transportation system. We must transition to a permanent space-based system, one emphasizing assets that allow transfer, refueling and reuse between the various energy levels of cislunar space.

We know that the Apollo template can be made to work because it worked in the past – for a price. And that is the curse of Apollo – it worked, whereas an incremental, cumulative system that could move us into the Solar System has never been constructed and shown to work. The Space Shuttle and International Space Station gave us the first two pieces of the von Braun architecture – now Shuttle is gone and Station has limited life left after completing its first decade in orbit. Fifty years hence will we still be writing about the Apollo era and those early days of accomplishment for the American civil space program? Or will we be writing about new discoveries and technology born from our resolve to set our national space program on a new course of spectacular achievement?

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 24 Comments

Unexpected Connections: The Strategic Defense Initiative and Space Resources

Possible layout of a Brilliant Pebble. The Clementine spacecraft carried the sensor suite that this vehicle would have used. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).

The recent successful interception of a ballistic missile in flight recalls earlier fevered debates of the 1980s and 90s over the “feasibility” of missile defense. Back then, “settled science” declared that missile defense was either impossible, or of such technical difficulty as to make the eventual deployment of a working system extremely unlikely. Although such “expert” judgment aligned more with political inclination than with sound technical assessment, it served its intended and useful media purpose of providing “proof” that SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), initiated in 1983, would never work. A similar set of circumstances exists today, as development and use of space resources to create new spaceflight capabilities faces familiar objections and roadblocks.

Leveraging access and capability in space through the use of the material and energy resources found in space gained traction during the initial study phases of SDI. Such a connection is logical – SDI was a program designed to establish a significant space presence by using a number of satellite assets with widely varying requirements (depending on their function: observation, monitoring, interdiction, or protection). Research initially focused on the deployment of unmanned systems from Earth, but it soon became apparent that the significant mass requirements needed by space-based missile defense put a strain on then-existing launch costs and capabilities. Most mass (weight) required in space is “dumb” mass (i.e., low information density) such as bulk material for shielding and protection, and propellant for the movement of assets throughout near-Earth space. Extended human missions beyond LEO faced similar difficulties. Thus, finding and using materials and energy from space-based sources became a topic of interest in both areas of research.

In 1983, a group of planetary scientists and defense space experts considered the acquisition and uses of space resources to support our national strategic needs. The report from this meeting recommended a research program designed to assess whether, and how, space resources from near-Earth asteroids and the Moon might be accessed and deployed. Their work considered a variety of needs for such a system, including orbital transfer vehicles (to move payloads between low Earth orbit and higher regions of cislunar space), propellant depots, and the use of bulk material to shield and protect satellite assets. Participants in the workshop included people from the NASA Johnson Space Center who were studying lunar base concepts, so the marriage of these two streams of inquiry occurred very early. This cross-fertilization continued with additional meetings and conferences during the 1980s, where the problems and benefits of using space resources were further examined.

Meanwhile, research in SDI techniques continued apace. Although a variety of approaches were studied, space-based missile defense architectures eventually moved from laser and particle beam weapons to kinetic energy interceptors, largely because there was less technical risk associated with such a system (we already knew that a high-velocity impact could destroy a target). A group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory led by Dr. Edward Teller developed one such system called Brilliant Pebbles (BP). The Brilliant Pebble concept used swarms of small satellites, each with its own independent sensing, computing, and propulsion capabilities. The spacecraft were small (“pebbles” – each a few 10s of kg) yet possessed significant autonomy and computing capacity (“brilliant”); when deployed by the thousands, they would create robust redundancy and thus, reliability. The Brilliant Pebbles concept took advantage of a variety of new advanced technologies already developed to support defense applications and applied them to the deep space mission of strategic missile defense.

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) that included a permanent return to the Moon and a future human mission to Mars. The Synthesis Group, chaired by Astronaut Thomas Stafford, was convened in 1990 by the White House to study architectures for this program. The assembled group considered a variety of architectures made up from “waypoints” that described a capability or a theme; several waypoint themes featured the use of space resources, including the Fuels, Energy and Asteroids Waypoints. It was proposed to use materials and energy from both asteroids and the Moon to augment capabilities for people on the Moon and in deep space. I was part of this study team and participated in defining these waypoints. Another member of the team was Dr. Stewart Nozette, who had edited the 1983 workshop report and was then employed by Lawrence Livermore on Brilliant Pebbles.

Nozette’s idea – testing the BP sensor suite and providing operational experience with a small, semi-autonomous spacecraft by flying a “Brilliant Pebble” – was the concept that became Clementine, the 1994 mission that flew to the Moon. In the course of 74 days, Clementine globally mapped the Moon in 11 colors in the visible and near-infrared, allowing us to map the location of resources (notably, iron and titanium) on the Moon. But the real payoff came from an improvised experiment that beamed radio waves into the dark regions near the lunar poles. By measuring the properties of reflected radio echoes from the poles, we found that water ice, long suspected by some planetary scientists, exists in the dark areas.

Some scientists were not convinced that ice was what we’d detected, largely on the grounds that the enhancement in same sense echoes seen in the Clementine radar data could also be cause by surface roughness. Thus began a decade-long debate over the meaning of the Clementine results. The debate was eventually resolved with additional data from subsequent missions, such as Lunar Prospector (which found enhanced hydrogen at the poles), India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission (that found polar ice using imaging radar), the LRO mission (a variety of spectral and remote evidence for water) and finally, the LCROSS spacecraft (which kicked up water ice particles and vapor by the impact of an empty Centaur stage near the south pole of the Moon). It is now widely agreed that significant amounts of water ice exist near the lunar poles, although its form and distributions remain unknown.

Although the presence of water on the Moon generated a variety of plans to develop and use it, skepticism about using space resources remains. The essence of these complaints sound very familiar to anyone conversant with the debates over SDI in the 1980s – “it’s too expensive and it won’t work.” But more significantly, both developments – SDI and exploiting space resources – upset the existing paradigm. For SDI, the idea that we should actively defend ourselves rather than passively await our annihilation actually offended those devoted to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction – the strategic paradigm under which we have lived for over half a century. As for space resource utilization, much of the current skepticism stems from the notion that we can somehow lower launch costs to a point, where everything we need in space, can be cheaply launched from Earth. One can see how this concept would be supported by much of the aerospace industry, as the development and operation of launch vehicles is a path of operation with known risks and rewards, while developing lunar propellant or making a lunar base through 3-D printing of lunar regolith, sounds like risky science-fiction.

The path to new and revolutionary capabilities is often littered with stumbling blocks and naysayers. The success of the recent missile defense test reminds us that something worthwhile, though extremely difficult, can usually be achieved (and hopefully, achieved in time). Space resource utilization is connected to both space-based defense and to human spaceflight. And in both cases, significant mass is needed in deep space, in much larger quantities than is practicable to launch solely from Earth’s surface. So, by dedicating our efforts to increase our capabilities in both of these areas, they will become both synergistic and mutually supporting.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 7 Comments

Student Aspirations, Public Excitement and the Purpose of a Space Program

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a couple of groups of university students on the space program and the value of the Moon and received some interesting reactions, which I write about at my latest for Air & Space magazine.  Comment here, if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 31 Comments

Farewell to a wise and thoughtful commentator on space

My good friend Bill Mellberg passed away this week.  I remember him in a post at Air & Space magazine.  Comment here if desired.

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

A National Space Council: To Be or Not To Be?

President Trump signs the new 2017 NASA Authorization bill. Is a new version of the National Space Council in the works?

News reports indicate that some version of a national space council (with Vice-President Mike Pence as chair) might be established. For some, the idea of a White House-level committee designed to monitor the nation’s space program may seem like a new idea, but in fact, it originated at the dawn of our civil space program. The purpose of a space council is to provide executive oversight of major space programs, both to ease possible obstructions that might arise during execution of a program and to assist in coordinating contributions from different entities participating in a national effort.

Different space councils have taken a variety of forms over the past 60 years, ranging from being intimately involved in the creation and implementation of policy to virtual non-existence. The most famous incarnation of the concept was the National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush, who conceived an ambitious plan of human exploration of the Moon and Mars. Reports detailing the announcement of that major initiative and its subsequent fate make for doleful reading, but in order to understand both the strengths and weaknesses of a space council, this story and the events leading up to it need to be retold.

The late 1980s was a depressing time for America’s space program. Following the loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986, there was an extended pause in human spaceflight – a shadow had been cast on the idea that access to space had become “routine.” More significantly, the then-next NASA program (Space Station Freedom) was caught in an endless loop of design and revision; not a single piece of station hardware had been launched by the end of that decade. Following more than a year of work, including public hearings and getting input from a wide variety of experts, an ambitious report on future space activities from a Presidential Commission (The National Commission on Space, which included luminaries such as Neil Armstrong) was released to near-universal indifference. Yet within NASA, teams of engineers and scientists had devised detailed plans for a human return to the Moon, as well as first-order studies of possible architectures for a follow-on mission to Mars.

In January of 1989, as the last phases of the Cold War were being playing out and Soviet influence and power were rapidly declining, President George H.W. Bush began his administration. The defense build-up of the Reagan years had created an American technological juggernaut of unsurpassed power and excellence. An unanswered question at the time was, “What is to become of this capability?” The United States was the most powerful country in the world, yet absent the imminent threat of a Soviet Union, such capability would likely dissipate. How then could this technological base – a national industrial and human capital infrastructure of immense power and capability and a major contributor to national wealth and innovation – be maintained, if not at its current level, then at least at levels high enough to be resurrected in times of some future national need or emergency?

One answer was to channel these capabilities toward other productive endeavors, ones that required high technology, large industrial capacity, and human capital working in an intellectually challenging environment. Although never so articulated by the Bush administration, it is my belief that it was decided that those requirements could be met by using some of these Cold War capabilities for the civil space program. This transfer of effort would accomplish several goals: we would maintain our technical innovative edge (a capability necessary for future conflicts and one that also contributed to our national wealth) and re-invigorate the moribund space program by adopting a challenging – yet reachable – set of goals. On July 20, 1989, President G.H.W. Bush stood on the steps of the National Air and Space Museum and announced the “Space Exploration Initiative” (SEI). It called for a human return to the Moon (“this time, to stay”) and a human mission to Mars. No timelines or detailed plans were produced for these journeys; instead, the SEI was laid out as a national strategic direction for the manned civil space program following the completion of the then-planned Space Station Freedom.

The subsequent fate of the SEI does not concern us here, but I note the role of the Space Council in the conception and execution of this major Presidential initiative. The Council conceived the SEI on the well-intentioned grounds of setting a challenging goal for the space program, one that would deliver significant benefits in technology development and also have enormous inspirational power. Once adopted and announced by the President, they carefully monitored NASA’s reactions and implementations of the SEI, noting where it fell short and taking appropriate actions, including eventually recommending the replacement of the Administrator. This was an entirely appropriate and justified set of actions and the subsequent Aldridge Commission carefully considered this example in the formulation of their report.

After a decade and a half of agency confusion, a second Shuttle disaster – the loss of the Shuttle Columbia in February 2003 – initiated a yearlong White House review of the direction of the U.S. space program. Once again, a return to the Moon followed by a human Mars mission was the direction selected, but this time, circumstances were different. The construction of a revised version of Space Station (the International Space Station, ISS) had been initiated and was progressing well. Many still fantasized about a human Mars mission, but the cognizant recognized that such a goal was beyond the fiscal and technical capabilities of the agency. On the other hand, as a result of two robotic missions flown in the 1990s (Clementine and Lunar Prospector), and in contrast to earlier SEI days, by 2004 we knew that the Moon’s poles contained both the material (e.g., water ice) and energy (e.g., near-permanent sunlight) resources needed to establish a sustained human presence there. Finally, unlike the previous SEI (and significant for its early fate), the new initiative had been briefed and found support from Congress, both houses of which were controlled by the President’s own party.

The goals of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) announced by President George W. Bush in January 2004 were the Moon (with an emphasis on developing and using its resources) and eventually, Mars. The President also announced that a commission would be convened to make recommendations on how the VSE would be implemented. This group was charged to consider the “Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy” and was chaired by former Secretary of the Air Force Pete Aldridge. In its report issued in mid-2004, one of its notable recommendations was to resurrect the Space Council.

This recommendation drew some criticism, in part because of the track record of previous space councils. But as a member of the Aldridge Commission, I can attest to my own motivations for supporting the idea. I was concerned (rightly, as it turned out) that without it, the agency would follow its own direction and inclinations, rather than the stated policy outlined by President Bush in his VSE speech. A sizeable contingent within NASA opposed a return to the Moon, favoring instead an Apollo-style Mars mission, and they set about to “slow roll” the lunar part of the Vision. To give but one example of this, a workshop was held in the spring of 2006 to consider exactly why we were going to the Moon, despite the fact that the mission of lunar return had been clearly stated in the 2004 announcement of the VSE (“…we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”). The Mars lobby within NASA continually attempted to demote and minimize lunar activities in the years that the VSE was in force (they were more concerned with an “exit strategy” for the Moon than they were in getting there). They succeeded in their quest when President Obama deleted the Moon from the NASA exploration plan in 2010 and replaced it with (essentially) nothing.

So what would a space council do? Ideally, this White House-level body would provide executive oversight of NASA by monitoring how it implements policy objectives and be ready to make needed course corrections early, when they are least painful and most efficacious. Had the Aldridge Commission recommendation on establishing the space council been adopted, that body could have reminded NASA exactly why the Moon was on the critical path, how and where its chosen implementation of the VSE was wanting and where it could be adjusted, and have wielded the political force necessary to assure compliance with those directives. With a multitude of important pressing issues, no President can be expected to constantly monitor NASA to assure that his directives are understood and carried out. A space council, supported by a professional staff with technical backgrounds, fiscal knowledge and executive experience, could monitor the progress of a Presidential initiative to assure that course corrections are applied in a timely, efficient manner.

Currently, there is no mechanism to provide this kind of oversight. NASA is overseen by Congressional committees that don’t always have the expertise necessary to judge agency technical decisions or compliance with directives. They also get direction from the Office of Management and Budget, likewise limited in time and personnel (NASA is a relatively small agency in a very large federal government). A suggestion that the National Research Council (NRC) could provide such oversight is misguided – their process for generating reports is somewhat arbitrary and parochial. NRC reports make excellent doorstops but do not carry any executive weight (their last report on human spaceflight has been totally ignored by NASA). In contrast to some opinions, the goal of having a space council is not to “micromanage” the tactical implementation of an architecture, or to “second guess” routine management decisions. A White House space council operates on a higher level, assuring that strategic intentions are being adequately addressed and managed. The agency’s past performance on major initiatives has repeatedly shown that such supervision is necessary.

The creation of a space council is no guarantee of good management and programmatic excellence. But the tendency toward mission creep and institutional stasis is a natural feature of bureaucracies. The Pentagon learned this lesson long ago and its Defense Science Board carefully monitors both requirements and products for major programs. While not a perfect system (waste, fraud and abuse still occur, even with the most carefully monitored programs), having outside technical oversight works to assure course correction in an environment prone to groupthink and mission drift. NASA needs competent external oversight in order to fight both.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy | 16 Comments

The Space “Field of Dreams”

Over at Air & Space, some musings on the space program (real and faux) as inspiration.  Comment here, if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, Space transportation | 34 Comments

A Commercial Human Flight to the Moon?

A Dragon 2 launches on a Falcon Heavy (SpaceX).

Early this week, SpaceX held a conference call to announce that two private individuals have paid their firm a “significant deposit” to be flown around the Moon next year. Although details are sketchy to nonexistent, it would appear that the mission profile is to circumnavigate the Moon before coming back to Earth in a free-return trajectory. The as-yet-unknown crew would fly in the as-yet-unflown Dragon 2 spacecraft – launched to the Moon by the as-yet-unflown Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. One thing portrayed as certain was the date – “late next year,” meaning presumably November or December of 2018 – by sheer coincidence no doubt, the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 8, the first human mission to circumnavigate the Moon.

Although accustomed to hearing periodic, grand pronouncements by various New Space companies, skepticism continues to grow over their follow-through, as actual accomplishment is sporadic and less certain. What we do know for certain is that SpaceX’s one operational launch vehicle (Falcon 9) has had a few issues, the most troubling being an explosion of the vehicle on the pad last September. Although the Falcon 9 successfully sent a Dragon cargo shipment to the ISS this past week, questions about the basic design of the vehicle (e.g., the immersion of a carbon composite-wrapped helium tank in the vehicle’s LOX tank) and preparation procedures (e.g., filling the LOX tank with “slush” oxygen during late stages of the countdown with crew aboard) remain unanswered.

Though promoted continuously over the last five years, we’ve yet to see even a structural test article of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. Still, many speak of this rocket as if it has already been in service for a decade or more. Falcon Heavy – a rocket design requiring the simultaneous and balanced operation of 27 engines during its boost phase, surely constitutes a challenging operational objective. The N-1 Soviet rocket had 30 engines in its first stage; it launched four times and exploded each time. Such a record does not automatically portend a similar outcome for the Falcon Heavy, but it does constitute food for thought. Additionally, SpaceX’s booster landing and recovery system is built into each segment of the FH first stage, complicating operations and reducing its total payload capacity.

A LEO-configured Dragon 2 would tip the scales at about 7-8 metric tones; one destined for the Moon will be at least this massive, possibly a bit more given the need for maneuvering fuel to assure putting the spacecraft on the correct return trajectory, and necessary extra consumables for the week-long journey. The Saturn V was able to put 48 metric tons in translunar injection (TLI), about 2/5 of its 120 metric ton LEO capacity. The Falcon Heavy, using lower specific impulse kerosene-LOX, should be able to send about 7-10 metric tones TLI, probably adequate for a “heavy” Dragon 2 manned circumlunar flyby.

Still, a few misleading claims have been made for the Falcon Heavy. The SpaceX web site claims that Falcon Heavy is the largest launch vehicle since Saturn V, but the Soviet Energia of the 1980s could place 100 metric tones into LEO, almost twice the capacity of Falcon Heavy. The press release announcing the lunar flyby makes the point that “At 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust, Falcon Heavy is two-thirds the thrust of Saturn V,” but this is an irrelevant metric. The measure of launch vehicle performance is the amount of mass that can be delivered to orbit. For Falcon Heavy, this figure is 54 tones, a bit less than one-half the quantity of the Saturn V (120 tones).

PR exaggeration and lingering questions about the reality of Falcon Heavy aside, there are several other serious issues about the feasibility of this mission. The Dragon 2 has never flown in space, let alone transported people there. The milestone of the first human flight on Dragon 2 has been pushed back multiple times; it is currently scheduled for sometime in 2018, close to the circumlunar tourist mission. Of course, paying passengers are assumed to have given informed consent, but would the FAA approve such a flight, given the short time and small experience base between initial LEO flights and a lunar one? A flight to the Moon occurs outside of the Earth’s Van Allen radiation belts, so solar activity must be carefully monitored to avoid flight during periods of active Sun – a large coronal mass ejection during translunar flight would mean instant death for the crew.

SpaceX has no experience in tracking, flying and operating vehicles at lunar distances. Global tracking facilities probably can be leased to monitor and control the flight, but it is unclear that the SpaceX flight teams have the knowledge and experience to conduct such a flight. A Dragon 2 on its way to the Moon has no hope of rescue, so its life support and flight control systems must function perfectly.

Perhaps the greatest challenge comes at the end of the mission. A spacecraft returning from the Moon approaches the Earth at near escape velocity, about 11 km/second, half again as fast as a LEO entry. Fifty years ago, the returning Soviet Zond spacecraft used a “skip” technique, whereby the vehicle enters Earth’s atmosphere to dissipate some energy (slow down), flies back out into space to lose excess heat (cool off), and then re-enters the atmosphere again before landing. In September 1968, the Zond 5 spacecraft lost its navigation and guidance system just before Earth return. The spacecraft landed safely, but experienced 15-20 times the force of gravity during the ballistic re-entry. The onboard crew of two turtles survived this torture, but it is not clear that a human would have.

Given all these questions and unknowns, how real is this circumlunar flight? I suggest that as with many other New Space public relations extravaganzas, this “mission” should be taken with a very large grain of salt. Like its big brother NASA and their imaginary “Journey to Mars,” New Space effectively uses the media to shape perceptions. In today’s society, press releases are covered as real accomplishments. You don’t actually have to do anything in space – you simply have to announce that you are going to do it. Increasingly, space has become the realm of the pseudo-event – a space theater reminiscent of P.T. Barnum.

Meanwhile, China continues its systematic and continuous progress toward the Moon and dominance of cislunar space.

Posted in China space program, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 31 Comments