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 | 13 Comments

Flight of the Space Turkey

The new Orion spacecraft — Cadillac or Edsel?

Throwing a wrench into NASA’s engine of progress may not have been the intent of Vice President Pence’s first meeting of the National Space Council with his announcement that a human return to the lunar surface is the new direction for America’s human spaceflight program. But a wrench it was and will remain until pieces of the formerly touted “Journey to Mars” – the heavy lift SLS launch vehicle, the Orion spacecraft, and a relatively recent addition, the Deep Space Gateway (DSG, a small human-tended space station in a distant orbit around the Moon) – are reimagined and torqued into the new strategic direction.

Much venom has been hurled at the SLS launch vehicle, largely on the grounds of its alleged cost and its origins as a “government rocket” (i.e., “pork”). But heavy lift launch capability is extremely useful for the emplacement of a substantial cislunar infrastructure. Heavy lift permits the launch of large and/or multiple vehicles and facilities all at one time, and that makes the coordination of their arrival and assembly at a selected trans-LEO destination easier. The core SLS vehicle delivers 70-80 metric tones to LEO, more than enough to put about 10 tones on the lunar surface, or 15-20 tones into low lunar orbit. In addition, a large rocket also offers a large shroud diameter; volume can actually be more critical than throw mass for large architecture pieces like big landers and habitat elements. Technically, the SLS is a good fit for any future lunar return architecture.

The main argument against the SLS is its cost, but current estimates of $1-2 billion per launch are based primarily on the low projected flight rate planned by the previous program of record, which called for very few missions. A faster pace of a lunar surface return could bring these costs down, although they would still be in the range of multi-hundreds of millions of dollars per flight. If the long-promised and long-awaited commercial heavy lift vehicle eventually emerges, this estimate of cost – and the choice of a heavy lift launch vehicle – should be re-evaluated (but not until then).

The Deep Space Gateway (DSG) is an idea that comes from a variety of architectural studies that looked at the use of a staging node placed beyond LEO – well outside of Earth’s gravity well, for a human Mars mission. Initially focused on the Earth-Moon Lagrange Points, subsequent studies converged on something called a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit, a complex path around the Moon that is relatively stable (requiring little orbital maintenance propulsion). The orbit selected for initial study is quite far from the Moon, up to 70,000 km distant. While this distance may make a good staging orbit for a departing Mars mission, it cannot easily support missions to low lunar orbit or to the lunar surface – the new strategic direction (delta-v to the surface from this orbit is near lunar escape velocity, ~2400 m/s).

In our published architectures (Spudis-Lavoie – Using the resources of the Moon to create a permanent, cislunar space faring system (2011) and Lavoie-Spudis – The Purpose of Human Spaceflight and a Lunar Architecture to Explore the Potential of Resource Utilization (2016), a propellant depot/transfer node is placed in low lunar orbit to keep the lunar lander transport a single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) vehicle, making the lander completely reusable. Moving the node point to the Earth-Moon L-1 point costs roughly an extra 800 m/s in delta-v. Our lander design is already challenged with the requirement of re-usability (mostly propulsion system concerns: multi-start use lifetime, with little to no maintenance) and by having an engine-out capability to provide reasonable abort scenarios. Other design considerations include extreme temperature variations (thermal cycles) and parts fatigue, which results in higher subsystem mass than a single-use lander. All of these factors lead us to place the depot/node at the lowest reasonable point in orbit around the Moon, ~100 km circular. Orbital maintenance is on the order of 500 m/s/yr, which is achievable for the depot. After initial operations, the depot/node can change its orbit to a more advantageous one should future lander designs prove more capable.

Properly reconfigured, the DSG could serve as a low lunar orbit habitat-depot-node. This would require re-thinking its mission (fuel depot in addition to habitat) and its thermal design, because low lunar orbit can be quite warm on the daytime side of the Moon. The “lumpiness” of the uneven lunar gravity field (mascons) makes low orbits unstable and considerable propulsion is necessary to maintain it. However, we now have lunar gravity maps of extraordinary quality that reveal “frozen orbits” – ones where virtually no orbital maintenance is required (the currently operating LRO spacecraft is in such a frozen orbit). Use of these orbits would need to be traded against accessibility and lander energy cost, but in any event, a propellant depot would possess more than adequate propulsion for orbital maintenance. Finally, and most importantly, a station in low lunar orbit is well placed to support operations in space and on the lunar surface.

If both the SLS and the DSG could be adapted to the requirements of lunar surface return, what about Orion? Consider this: Orion was originally conceived as a component of the Constellation spaceflight system; it was designed to transport people to and from the Moon in a manner similar to the Apollo spacecraft. In short, this was a mission launched “all up” from Earth, with pieces discarded after use along the way. In the case of Constellation, two vehicles, Ares I and V, would launch the Orion and the Altair and transfer stage, respectively. The two vehicles would dock in low Earth orbit and depart for the Moon. Burning into lunar orbit, the crew would transfer to the Altair lunar lander and descend and land on the Moon for a period of a couple of weeks. After exploration of the landing site, the crew would ascend to the orbiting Orion and transfer into it for their journey home. The Orion spacecraft would discard its service module and re-enter the atmosphere at near-escape velocity, splashing down in the ocean for recovery. At each step in the above mission sequence, parts are discarded and not reused, requiring high levels of funding and leaving little, if any, hardware in space as legacy infrastructure.

When the Constellation program was cancelled in 2010, Orion was the only piece preserved, largely because at the time, it was the only spacecraft capable of sending American astronauts into space. However, without its Altair lander, Orion was no longer a lunar spacecraft system. It instead became a vehicle whose only purpose is to send crew into trans-LEO space and allow them to return to Earth with aero-thermal entry. It can support a crew of four, for periods of a couple of weeks, but cannot last much longer. It is for this reason that the ill-conceived Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) concept was born – designed to give Orion someplace to go and something to do. Despite the fact that the ARM was nearly worthless scientifically and operationally, it was a mission configured to the capabilities of the Orion spacecraft. To support this scaled back mission profile, the current edition of the Service Module for the Orion (built by the Europeans) is smaller than the previous edition under Constellation. Unfortunately, that also means that the Orion can get into (but cannot then get out of) low lunar orbit, taking from Orion what little value it had for a possible lunar mission.

Where does that leave things as NASA contemplates lunar return? We currently have three pieces of space hardware, each configured to support a vaguely defined series of missions to deep cislunar space. The SLS can be adapted to transport all the pieces we need to establish and operate an outpost on the Moon. The Deep Space Gateway can be modified to operate in low lunar orbit, making it a possible staging node for trips to and from the Moon’s surface. But that still leaves us with Orion. True enough, crew members leaving the Moon will need a way to return to Earth, but if a permanent outpost is established there, we need to develop a reusable system that transports crew and cargo to and from low Earth orbit on a recurring basis (a reusable cislunar transfer stage). Such a vehicle would fire a rocket to accelerate out of LEO into a translunar trajectory. Approaching the Moon, it could burn into and out of low lunar orbit, delivering crew and supplies to be transferred into the lunar lander vehicle. On the way home, rather than direct entry and landing on Earth, it would aerobrake (i.e., use Earth’s atmosphere to slow the vehicle from escape velocity to orbital velocity) into Earth orbit and rendezvous with a transfer node in LEO. Here the crew would transfer to a commercial vehicle for return to Earth. All of these systems have been envisioned, at least conceptually, by a variety of published architectures over the last decade.

But can Orion be repurposed? In contrast to most informed opinion, I believe that of the three major human spaceflight pieces described here, Orion is the one that is the least useful and most likely to vanish. This should not be too surprising, considering that it is an orphaned, smaller piece of a larger system designed to return people to the Moon. Yet work continues on Orion, heedless of any possible change in mission – and has done so throughout the last 8 years as its mission gradually morphed from Moon-Mars spacecraft, to an asteroid spacecraft, to a “Space Station in Deep Space” spacecraft. This bureaucratic resilience suggests that setting Orion aside is a nonstarter – contractors and Congressional advocates may insist on its continuation, in a manner similar to the SLS “lobby,” which assured continuity of that development program.

Ideally, one would design a return to the Moon using a clean sheet, focusing on early robotic presence and a series of newly imagined, modular, reusable space-based human assets. However, we do not live in that world. So the question is how to “MacGyver” what we have to get what we need. Listed in order of decreasing usefulness, SLS, DSG and Orion can all be used in a lunar return. The SLS provides us a way to get large, heavy payloads to the Moon. The DSG, while not currently configured to support lunar surface activities, could be modified to do so without too much re-design. The Orion could be used for early human flights to the DSG – establishing a human presence near the Moon, while robots would do much of the early resource prospecting and processing work on the surface. After human return to the lunar surface, Orion could be docked at the DSG and serve as a “lifeboat” vehicle in the event that emergency circumstances require the outpost crew return quickly to Earth.

From Super-Apollo to crew assured-return vehicle – a diminished ending to a once-noble vehicle development? Possibly. It depends on your point of view. As it currently exists, Orion is not a particularly useful spacecraft. But if we use it to help establish a permanent human presence on the Moon, it will have served a noble purpose indeed.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 26 Comments

A Pioneering NASA Administrator

I have new post up at Air & Space discussing the “Pioneering Doctrine” devised by Rep. Jim Bridenstine as part of his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA).  Although not yet a passed law, this doctrine is informative about his thinking on the rationale and strategic objectives of our national space program.  Comment here if desired.

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

Thoughts on the Job of NASA Administrator

NASA administrators, past and future. What makes a good one?

The White House announcement of the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R- OK) for NASA Administrator drew some immediate and rather surprising (to me, anyway) reactions. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), whose state is critically involved in America’s space program, both questioned Bridenstine’s appointment. Sen. Nelson believes the space agency needs “a space professional” to run it; Sen. Rubio put forth that the job of NASA Administrator has traditionally been non-political, arguing that appointing a politician to the job will work towards destroying the bipartisan goodwill he claims the space program has traditionally enjoyed.

Let us examine some of these contentions and consider what qualities a “good” NASA Administrator must have. One of the first things to recognize about the job is that the Administrator is appointed by the President and therefore, works for the President. The heads of federal agencies do not set policy – they implement it. That said, it is true that NASA Administrators tend to have a bit more influence on policy than most other agencies, but mostly because as representatives of a technical entity, they deal with issues in which other administration officials are not expected to be conversant. The newly reconstituted National Space Council chaired by Vice President Pence will oversee our national space policy and it will set no policy path that does not have the full approval of the President.

The NASA Administrator’s job is to keep the agency running and funded while at the same time, implementing specific policy directions given by the President. Does such a job description require a “space professional” as Senator Nelson claims? Since its inception, NASA has had eleven administrators (I exclude from this discussion the “acting administrators” because these people held the job for shorter times as caretakers until a permanent administrator could be named). Past administrators have had a wide variety of expertise, backgrounds and temperaments, yet some common threads emerge. Glennan, Paine, Beggs, Goldin and Griffin were all engineers by training but each had considerable executive experience in industry and government. Fletcher and Frosch had degrees in physics, but their work experience was almost entirely as engineers and managers. O’Keefe was trained as a naval engineer, but became a career government bureaucrat; when he took over the reins at NASA, he famously described himself as a “bean-counter” (which was exactly what the then-disastrous International Space Station program needed).

Jim Webb was a former Marine Corps Reserve pilot, a lawyer, a federal bureaucrat and arguably, the greatest administrator NASA ever had. True enough, during the Apollo program, Webb was provided with abundant resources to carry out his mission, but one should note he was also given a monumental task, one that could have easily turned into a complete disaster – and indeed, with the Apollo 1 fire, almost did. Webb was a powerhouse of management competence, a guy who knew his technical limitations and was secure enough to seek and obtain solid advice from competent engineers like George Low and Robert Gilruth. But just as importantly, Webb could explain problems and progress to members of the Executive and the Congress – key people needed to approve the resources and political backing to complete the job. Webb kept the Apollo funding flowing and he completed the assigned task. The glorious NASA that exists in the mind of the public is largely the creation of Jim Webb and the people he hired during the 1960s.

The last two NASA Administrators, Richard Truly and Charles Bolden – both pilots and former astronauts – arguably were unsuited for the Administrator’s job.  Truly is a former Shuttle astronaut who held the reins at NASA during the first half of the George H. W. Bush administration, a critical period in the history of the agency that was undergoing a major crisis of confidence in both its human and robotic spaceflight programs. The Shuttle was flying again after the long post-Challenger hiatus, but little progress had been made on Space Station Freedom, the principal program for future human spaceflight. The robotic program was equally troubled – the Mars Observer spacecraft had been mysteriously lost and the Hubble Space Telescope was found to have been launched with “blurred vision,” caused by an incorrectly ground main mirror.

But Truly’s biggest failure (which led to his sacking) was foot-dragging on President Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, an attempt to set into motion a new strategic direction for the civil space program by returning to the Moon and undertaking a mission to Mars. Truly disliked the idea, mostly because he saw it as destroying his beloved Shuttle program and he thought that the agency was incapable of the added work, given its problems with Space Station Freedom. The tepid agency response to Bush’s bold space initiative infuriated the President, who fired Truly and replaced him with Dan Goldin (whose reign then proceeded to create new idiocies to replace those perpetrated by Truly).

Charles Bolden faithfully executed the policy path desired by President Obama and his Presidential Science Advisor, John Holdren – the unilateral cancellation of the Vision for Space Exploration (a “bipartisan” space policy if there ever was one) and set a Potemkin Village “Mission to Mars” in its place. So, in a strict bureaucratic sense, Bolden might be considered a “good administrator” in that he faithfully implemented the policy of the President he served. But what remains of the once-glorious agency after eight years of Bolden is almost too painful to contemplate. With the Shuttle retired, we have no American means to get astronauts to and from a space station that we largely paid for and built. Plans for future human missions beyond LEO are meaningless and inconsequential “make work” projects with little value and no lasting spacefaring legacy. Bolden actively promoted the fraudulent “Mission to Mars” mythology created within the agency, a policy that prevented the Congress and the public from knowing they had lost what was once (and was still being) taken for granted – a robust space program that was going somewhere and doing something significant.

So the job that Jim Bridenstine takes on (Senate willing) is anything but a cakewalk. A Bridenstine-led NASA should carefully re-assemble a competent technical base at NASA – replace the lost core of engineering excellence that has died, left or retired over the past decade. The new Administrator will oversee the forthcoming transition to “commercial crew” in which industry will provide transportation to and from the ISS for American astronauts. Most importantly, the new administrator will guide the agency into a new direction for human spaceflight beyond LEO.

That new direction may come very soon. The Space Council meets this month for the first time. Assuming that sanity prevails, both the fake “Mission to Mars” and the gimmicky “cislunar proving ground” ideas will be dropped. What’s required now is a sustained, incremental approach to spaceflight beyond LEO, an architecture culminating in a return to the Moon and the processing of its resources to fuel a permanent space-based transportation system. His published writings clearly indicate how intricately Jim Bridenstine understands these needs. Through his sponsorship of the American Space Renaissance Act, Bridenstine has demonstrated not only a clear, long-range vision, but also a deep technical understanding of and interest in what is required and what is possible for America’s civil space program.

I welcome the nomination of Jim Bridenstine for the job of NASA Administrator – far from being “a partisan pick,” he is an inspired choice. Once confirmed, Bridenstine will knowingly walk into an incredibly difficult situation, one with significant pitfalls and detours along the way, yet he has done his homework. He understands the situation and knows what needs to be done. A “politician?” Certainly. Who better to speak to members of the Congress in an understandable manner about the needs of the agency? Politics is the means by which Americans conduct public business. To put it another way, what agency head in Washington is not a politician at some level? Not a “space professional”? Jim Bridenstine has demonstrated through his background, writings and speeches that he fully understands what our national space agency needs and what should be required from our space program. I contend that Jim Bridenstine understands these things much better than many of the “space professionals” I deal with on a daily basis.

To Senators Rubio and Nelson: Do you want a meaningful, productive and successful national space program? If so, you will support the President’s nomination of Jim Bridenstine for NASA Administrator. However, if you are content with the debilitating and pointless status quo – the stagnation and withering of NASA – then it is understandable that you might want someone other than Jim Bridenstine at the helm. That is the choice at hand.

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

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