Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the trailblazing robotic space mission to the Moon – Surveyor 1. With prophetic timing, a recent political development (along with various and sundry news reports and another anniversary) indicates a renewed interest in the Moon as a destination. This hodgepodge includes: specific funding and program direction by the U.S. House of Representatives in their 2017 NASA appropriations bill, news stories about Russian and Chinese lunar missions supposedly to be flown in the near future, and a piece on President Kennedy and the Apollo program (last Wednesday, May 25, was the 55th anniversary of Kennedy’s special appropriations speech to Congress, asking for the lunar landing goal). Under ordinary circumstances, these disparate threads might be random noise, but taken together, they may signal a possible “new” direction for our civil space program.
The most significant event is the new House appropriations bill, which not only terminates work on the absurd Asteroid Retrieval Mission (“no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid”) but specifically directs NASA instead to “develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.” This development should come as no surprise, as many witnesses at numerous Congressional hearings and some Members themselves have repeatedly expressed puzzlement, frustration and dismay with the ARM concept. Congress has repeatedly attempted to steer NASA back toward the lunar goals of the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration – in the 2010 Authorization, both cislunar space and the lunar surface were specified as destinations for human missions, direction that the agency adamantly ignored.
This new funding action follows earlier direction in this year’s authorization bill to develop a cislunar habitat – a small facility to be located somewhere near the Moon – either in lunar orbit, or at one of the Lagrangian points. The purpose of such a facility would be to learn about the difficulties and opportunities of deep space habitation – including life support, transport and operations, and mitigation of the hard radiation environment. Having near instantaneous radio response, crew members could control an exploration rover on the lunar surface. Such capability would allow us to conduct geological fieldwork by creating the sensation of telepresence – the simulation of existence (being there) at a remote location. Additionally, a deep space habitat could serve as a jumping-off point for future missions to low lunar orbit and to the surface. The facility could eventually host future re-fueling, servicing and other activities, and with them, the crucial beginning of a permanent spacefaring system.
While Congress has been working to re-vector America’s space program back on the correct path, other nations have not remained idle. News reports appeared this past week about both Russian and Chinese lunar efforts. Russia claims to be planning for human lunar landings within the next decade, culminating in a lunar base by 2030. As is often the case when space plans are revealed in the media, it is difficult to get a full picture of the planned Ryvok spacecraft from its description, but it will be launched in several pieces and marshaled at the ISS for assembly and departure. In an innovative and encouraging twist, on return to Earth, Ryvok will deploy an umbrella-like device and use aerocapture to slow itself back into Earth orbit, capability that could make the vehicle a reusable Earth-Moon transfer system. Although news stories describe trips to the lunar surface, I think the stories are exaggerated, or at best, incomplete. You need about 7 kg of mass (mostly propellant) in LEO to get 1 kg of payload softly onto the surface of the Moon. And to come home, you need to bring your return vehicle (and the fuel for it) with you – at least initially. The description in the news makes it sound like this vehicle is an orbital spacecraft – one that could take both cargo and crew to lunar orbit. A separate vehicle might be needed for decent to the surface and return, but without the technical details, it is impossible to fully describe the Russian architecture.
China has long planned a sample return mission from the Moon (currently scheduled to take place with the Chang’E 5 mission next year). But the new announcement calls for a follow-up sample return mission from “the north and south poles of the Moon.” It is not clear whether the intention is to collect material from both poles or simply from one of them. No landing sites were announced, but one must assume that they will attempt to land in some location likely to contain water ice, in order to examine and characterize those deposits. New interest in polar volatiles by the Chinese is highly significant. They have already demonstrated their intention to use cislunar space for a variety of purposes. It would be wise to carefully monitor their intentions and activities there.
These reports are coming out around the occasion of the 55th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech to Congress announcing the “man-Moon-decade” goal of the Apollo program. A recent analysis notes this anniversary and offers some policy conclusions from that effort. Author Eric Berger contends that while the Apollo program was a magnificent achievement, we have been “stagnant” in space since that time. A basic misunderstanding with this analysis is found in the title of the piece: Kennedy’s vision for NASA inspired greatness, then stagnation. The Apollo program was not a “vision for NASA” – it was a vision for the nation, one driven by goals and objectives totally unrelated to spaceflight. The idea that we have been “stagnant” in space for the last 40 years is only valid from the perspective of a national crash program (Apollo), underwritten by a blank check.
What was Kennedy’s vision? JFK was the consummate Cold Warrior, who believed that the Soviet Union must be confronted and overcome wherever and whenever they were encountered. Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam were battlegrounds of ideas in the war for the hearts and minds of the non-aligned countries of the world. With the advent of Sputnik, Kennedy saw the Moon as a new battleground. The goal of Apollo was not to go there and then move onward to the planets – it was to be the first on the Moon, removing any doubt sown by Sputnik and Gagarin that the United States was somehow lagging in its technological capabilities. Given these Cold War origins, it does not follow that Apollo is, or should be, any kind of a template for future spacefaring efforts. It was a crash program designed to answer the requirements of a then-current, perceived world crisis, one that, through the victory of Apollo, saw the U.S. prevail years later, when we won the Cold War.
After Apollo, many in the space community believed that we could take the new capabilities given us by that template and go to Mars. That was never in the cards, then or now. Unlike Apollo, there is no geopolitical objective that would marshal the will of Congress and the nation to expend the resources needed to bludgeon the technical problems posed by such a mission into submission – as was done for the Moon. (Don’t know how to rendezvous in space? OK, we’ll learn how. Can’t build a computer small and light enough to navigate to and from the Moon? OK, we’ll design and build one.) That technical capability – and the Cold War industrial infrastructure necessary to support it – is gone (though it spawned much of today’s technology). To go into deep space today requires a different approach: the incremental building of a space-based infrastructure designed for permanence and reuse.
We’ve spent the last 40 years in LEO because after Apollo, NASA returned to the Wernher von Braun template of incremental extension of human reach. This model consists of four simple steps: LEO, space station, Moon tug, Mars mission. We’ve only completed the first two steps – building a cislunar transportation system is the next logical step. Those who advocate human missions to Mars as the “next goal” are abandoning the von Braun paradigm for the Apollo model (which so far, has given us 40 years in LEO). Von Braun himself recognized that Apollo was a side-step in the long-range exploration and permanence of humanity in space, but he supported it because he also knew the stakes of the geopolitical race. He believed we would use Apollo hardware to implement an incremental approach. But von Braun (along with many others) did not foresee that such a program was unsustainable without a political imperative (and the necessary fiscal resources). Although we have spent roughly the same amount of money on space in the last 40 years as we did on Apollo (and seemingly have gotten less for it), it is important to understand that in federal programs, it is not the total amount of money spent that is important; it’s the rate at which you spend it that counts.
Berger’s piece is a good reminder that Apollo is not coming back, barring some geopolitical, “Pearl Harbor-type” disaster. Thus, our task is to figure out how to slowly and affordably move beyond LEO. It is not a task suitable to arbitrary, irrelevant and impossible deadlines (e.g., humans to Mars in the 2030s). Spacefaring is a skill to be developed over decades, one that will return many benefits to a wide variety of space users, not simply for the scientists and not only for the “settlers.” Fortunately, more and more people recognize this reality and their ideas on how to implement such a movement are receiving serious consideration. Time will tell if reason prevails and we finally secure the ability to become true spacefarers.