While parroting President Obama’s well-known disinterest in the Moon, SpaceX founder Elon Musk begrudgingly acknowledged its utility during a recent CBS News interview. In his view, a stepwise incremental approach to Mars “colonization” would involve “possibly” landing on the Moon with people. He is careful to remind us that he’s not personally “super-interested” in the Moon because “obviously we’ve done that,” but feels that a lunar landing will test needed capability.
I won’t belabor the obvious point that nobody in the U.S. space business working today has ever landed on the Moon nor for that matter, even sent any type of landed robotic vehicle there. Instead, I found it interesting that in an interview devoted to his Mars colonization idea, Musk went out of his way to: 1) dismiss the value of lunar return by hoisting the old “been there” canard; and 2) at the same time, acknowledge that such a return might actually have some technical value as a stepping stone toward more distant destinations. The wind may be shifting.
Before considering this renewed interest in the Moon, I note that Musk states his mid-2030’s Mars colonization plan will require the development of launch vehicles of a size on a “bigger scale than has ever been done before.” We know that a Mars mission staged entirely from Earth would require an enormous amount of mass to be launched; using a super heavy lift vehicle (such as the Ares V of the cancelled Constellation project), it would require between six and twelve launches to mount a single human Mars mission. Getting “millions” of colonists to the Red Planet on this basis would be cumbersome, to say the least. And it doesn’t help making those tickets one-way either – you still need (roughly) a million pounds in LEO to send one human mission to Mars. Then there is the issue of learning how to land humans on Mars, not to mention keeping them alive afterwards. Those details are left as an exercise for the student.
In recent weeks, new concepts involving lunar return have been floated in several quarters, usually under the rubric of some new, different or innovative programmatic umbrella. NASA has recently announced a program called Lunar CATALYST (Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown). CATALYST is an outreach to commercial companies working on developing lunar landing capabilities. This new program is an offer to make agency capabilities (installations, software, testing facilities) available to support commercial firms developing landers for the Moon. While agency support involves no monetary awards, such in-kind help is extremely valuable, especially for access to environmental testing (e.g., thermal-vacuum) that would be difficult or impossible to accomplish without the specialized facilities that NASA has developed over the years.
Recent articles outline the possible benefits of lunar return, both as an enabling activity for future spaceflight and as an activity in its own right. A piece in the Daily Telegraph discusses the advent of the CATALYST program and also takes note of international interest in human missions to the Moon, specifically as outlined in the Global Exploration Roadmap. The scientific community has expressed its interest in the Moon via the release of an advocacy brochure on the value of lunar return from the Lunar Exploration Advisory Group (an informal group of scientists who advise NASA on issues in lunar science and exploration). A piece in The Space Review notes the scientific rationale for lunar return is extensive and human lunar missions have been given strong endorsement and support from both internal NASA and National Academy panels convened to consider them.
Parties with an interest in space security are closely following the Chinese lander mission Chang’E 3, which touched down on the Moon last December. It deployed a rover and has been exploring part of Mare Imbrium. Lunar scientists have been particularly interested in this mission. Although there are indications the rover might have malfunctioned recently, with the arrival of a new dawn at the Chang’E 3 landing site in about a week, it should start work again and we’ll know more then about its condition. The geopolitical significance of Chinese interest in the Moon has only recently begun drawing attention, although much of the analysis so far has been relatively superficial. It is commonly assumed that China is conducting lunar missions with the sole aim of achieving parity with past American and Russian accomplishments. I have argued here and elsewhere that something much more profound is likely to be their primary motivation.
Interestingly, this new focus on the Moon is tacking into a subtle shift in policy emphasis. Previously, whereas lunar missions could not be imagined in any sense other than an Apollo Redux type of “touch-and-go” sortie, we are now looking at possible activities enabled by a more permanent presence there. Such possibilities are not without their critics; some are not able to imagine any value to a long-term presence on the Moon. However, two primary realizations have caught the eye of space advocates. First, human missions to Mars are too distant in the future to serve as realistic strategic horizons for a civil space program. Political realities dictate accomplishment on time scales of less than a decade, with shorter intervals preferable to longer ones. Second, even if we accept Mars as a long-range goal, our activities on and around the Moon offer us the opportunity to develop the capabilities we will eventually need to conduct human missions beyond the Moon. Musk’s grudging admission indicates that even the most die-hard Mars-Firster realizes that testing equipment and procedures on the Moon reduces risk and enables better and faster development of the technologies needed for interplanetary flight.
We’ve yet to see if NASA’s interest will amount to a real program but with China’s recent landing on the Moon and their deployment of a rover (with talk of manned missions and resource utilization), the conversation has definitely taken a turn back toward the Moon.
Note: For more information on why the Moon and cislunar space need to be our next destination, here is a direct link to all my SLR posts on the Moon, lunar return and space policy: http://www.spudislunarresources.com/blog/slrb.htm. Along with those posts, you can find a more easily accessible table of contents of all my “Once and Future Moon” posts on these subjects at Air&Space. Their website has recently been revamped, making it easier to find this information: http://blogs.airspacemag.com/author/paul-d-spudis/. They are working on a few remaining issues that arose with the switchover but all in all, things seem fairly complete. You can also view a comprehensive chronological list and access to all of my Air&Space blog posts here: http://www.spudislunarresources.com/blog/oafm.htm