The Moon is Again Within Reach – Let’s Grab (and Hold On To) It

Captivated by the Moon 47 years ago. Are we due for a repeat? (Mad Men/AMC)

Captivated by the Moon 47 years ago. Are we due for a repeat? (Mad Men/AMC)

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.


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18 Responses to The Moon is Again Within Reach – Let’s Grab (and Hold On To) It

  1. Joe says:

    This may make a little more sense of the Russian potential plans.

    (1) The Russian Lunar Plans were set back by problems with the Russian economy. Budget cutbacks caused the delay in development of the Russian HLV to support the effort.

    (2) However the Russian Crew Vehicle (Orion equivalent and intended to be reusable after return to earth) and the Angara 5V booster (38 metric ton to LEO capability) survived.

    (3) Engineers came up with a four launch scenario to continue the effort:
    (a) 2 Angara 5V launches to place the crew vehicle in LLO.
    (b) 2 Angara 5V launches to place a lander in LLO.

    (4) This seems to be a variation of that plan that would return the crew vehicle to the ISS for reuse saving a launch per mission.

    Question is if the new pan is actually approved and funded (at least to the lunar orbit phase at this point). That would require additional funding for an Earth Departure Stage (EDS).

    • Paul Spudis says:


      Many thanks for this information and the link. I always take the announcement of Russian plans with a big grain of salt.

      • Joe says:

        You’re very welcome.

        It is always best to take Russian pronouncements with a block of salt, but in this case a grain may be enough.

        It appears (from what I can gather) that the Angara 5 derivatives intended for the program are fully funded (the Angara 5 has already had one successful test flight). The Lunar Crew Vehicle (now called Federatsiya – Russian for Federation) also is funded.

        In order to do a lunar orbit mission an earth departure stage is needed. One is there (at least in concept), it even has an acronym (MOB-KVTK); but it is hard to tell it has a budget.

        The new development is the possible use of an Aero-brake. It would also need funding not yet apparent.

        Still the fact that the conceptual program is this far along is good evidence of the main point of your article that worldwide space planning appears to be coalescing on the Moon.

  2. Grand Lunar says:

    It is good to hear that the silly asteroid mission is being unfunded.

    I was wondering about the validity of the habitat in near-lunar space.
    I imagine placing it at either L1 or L2 would be ideal. L2 would be nice if only to isolate the view of the Earth.

    My big concern is this part:
    “…to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars…”
    Last time, this was all that NASA was thinking about. And it cost us big time.

    Painful as it may be for NASA, human Mars missions ought to be placed on the shelf for now.
    We can think about Mars AFTER we have the cislunar infrastructure.

    And of course, we also need to avoid the pitfalls of putting all faith in SpaceX, despite their success at a third or fourth landing.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      I completely agree. But the Mars idée fixe is nearly impossible to expunge. I am willing to indulge this fantasy if it leads to our taking the steps toward building cislunar infrastructure.

      • billgamesh says:

        In my view the formula for exorcising Mars from the collective consciousness is to identify the far more exciting exciting exploration destinations- the ocean moons of the gas giants.

        This is actually not so unlikely because once the only practical system of propulsion for interplanetary travel is identified (nuclear pulse propulsion) then everything else falls in line. The Moon is the only place to acquire the space radiation shielding, assemble, test, and launch nuclear missions (LEO is the worst place). Once such a super-powerful system is selected then bypassing Mars and transporting submarines to Ceres and other low gravity, low radiation, liquid environments becomes the logical choice.

  3. billgamesh says:

    The NewSpace entrepreneurs are the main stumbling block to a Moon return as they want nothing to do with it for several reasons. The SLS is their nemesis as fully funding a Super Heavy Launch Vehicle will focus interest on the one place it makes sense to go with one: the Moon.

    Funding Michoud for full core production like the shuttle ET (6 to 8 cores per year) and cranking up RS-25 and SRB production to support a target of 8 missions per year makes LEO the logical place to abandon and never return to. Wet workshop modifications for a cislunar habitat and robot landers to bring water up to fill the cosmic ray shields of these workshops makes any money going to LEO a total waste of time and effort.

    No LEO and the entrepreneurs and their space tourist business plan goes in the trashcan. If Musk and Bezos want to shift their focus to lunar landers I will be their biggest fans. What they are doing right now is the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration.

    • billgamesh says:

      Fully funding a Super Heavy Lift Vehicle (sorry, not “launch vehicle”). I would add that wet workshops are modifications to existing necessary hardware and are the ultimate reuse concept. A lunar lander that can harvest ice and convert some of the captured resource into fuel is an unmanned vehicle and semi-expendable: used until it fails without endangering human life.

      Empty stages partially filled with lunar water (hundreds of tons of water) provide shielding from any solar event and the long term effects of cosmic rays. A few thousand feet of tether and a pair of such workshops can be spun to provide Earth gravity. This kind of true space station removes the unacceptable dosing and debilitation of astronauts and allows for the most high risk category, young women, to fully participate without facing a greater risk of cancer.

      These stations can transit back to GEO and provide telecom services that in one stroke can be upgraded, maintained by technicians, shielded from radiation, and end the orbital debris problem. Capturing the over 100 billion dollars a year in GEO telecom revenue is in my view the initial path to realizing an economic base for Human Space Flight.

    • Ben says:

      SpaceX is perfectly willing to send missions to the moon if someone pays them to do it.

      For example, Google Lunar X Prize team SpaceIL currently has a “verified launch contract” with SpaceX.

      On the other hand, they are very excited about Mars, and are willing to self-fund missions to Mars. This seems to be a win-win.

      For example, Red Dragon mission. NASA is providing ~$30million worth of Deep Space Network time, consulting support, etc in exchange for Retro-propulsion data. Quite a bargain for NASA. (note: I would be extremely surprised if this mission launches on time. I expect it to be delayed by at least only launch window (~2 years))

      Would it be better if they were really excited about the moon and were willing to self-fund missions there, sure. But any company self-funding space missions is a good thing in my opinion.

      • billgamesh says:

        “-any company self-funding space missions is a good thing in my opinion.”

        While the fairy tale of a for profit company selflessly making humankind a multi-planet species is good P.R. it is unfortunately not a “good thing” for space exploration. It is in fact the worst possible scam the cause of space exploration could be afflicted with. The space agency has made many wrong turns in the last half century but the worst ones have beyond any doubt been adopting Mars as their hook while aiding SpaceX in undermining their own leadership in space. Nothing less than organizational suicide.

        And thanks for yet another SpaceX advertisement.

        • Ben says:

          Never the less,
          I don’t see how “NewSpace” launch companies “want nothing to do with [the moon]” any more than non-NewSpace companies do.

          If paid they are just as will to launch a mission there as ULA.

          Without being paid none of them are very likely to unless its a tech demo or some such.

          • billgamesh says:

            “I don’t see how “NewSpace” launch companies “want nothing to do with [the moon]”-”

            “We are not Moon people.”
            Gwynne Shotwell, CEO SpaceX.

    • Grand Lunar says:

      The NewSpace entrepreneurs have little say in what direction NASA’s human spaceflight plans are to be, so I don’t see how they threaten it.
      Indeed, politicians are calling for support for lunar missions despite SpaceX’s dreams of Mars.
      And if the development of cislunar infrastructure becomes manifest, then SLS will be leaving SpaceX choking on its rocket exhaust while they’ll still screaming how much better their paper rockets are.

      As has been posted before (even in this article, I believe), LEO is not to be abandoned.
      Rather, LEO is just one part of a much larger tapestry.
      If we develop cislunar space as described by Dr. Spudis, then we’ll have service vehicles in LEO as well as other Earth orbital locations for our satellites.
      We’ll still go to LEO, as we have for the past few decades.
      We just won’t be limited to LEO, that’s all.

  4. “…unless NASA begins a program to develop landers and surface systems, NASA astronauts will be limited to orbital missions. In the current budget environment, however, it appears unlikely that NASA will obtain significant funding to begin development of this additional exploration hardware anytime soon, effectively delaying such development into the 2020s. Given the time and money necessary to develop landers and associated systems, it is unlikely that NASA would be able to conduct any manned surface exploration missions until the late 2030s at the earliest.”

    Developing the Space Launch System, Orion, and Ground Systems Development and Operations Programs


    November 14, 2014

    Obviously, Congress needs to commit NASA to seriously start funding the development of Extraterrestrial Landing Vehicles for the Moon, Mars, and the moons of Mars if we want to start deploying humans and habitats to extraterrestrial worlds in the near future.

    It took approximately seven years for NASA to develop and deploy the first lunar lander to the lunar surface after eleven firms were invited to submit proposals for the development of an LEM in July of 1962. And it would probably take around the same amount of time if this were a commercial crew type of program.

    But NASA needs to seriously commit itself to developing reusable landing vehicles that can at least take advantage of extraterrestrial oxygen resources and, hopefully, also extraterrestrial hydrogen resources.


    • billgamesh says:

      “Congress needs to commit NASA to seriously start funding the development of Extraterrestrial Landing Vehicles for the Moon, Mars, and the moons of Mars if we want to start deploying humans-”

      A human-rated lander, especially a “reusable” one, is a very different animal than a semi-expendable robot lander. I am all about Human Space Flight and not robots, but in this case the troubleshooting tree indicates going with the robot will quickly exploit lunar ice resources and shuttle the water shielding to allow a long term human presence Beyond Earth Orbit.

      As for Mars- it is a bad idea. As I commented, the ocean moons of the gas giants are far more attractive exploration destinations. Mars is wrongly perceived as being “just close enough” and is not suitable for colonization. The true spaceship required for Human Space Flight Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (HSF-BELO) will be a spinning nuclear propelled construct with a bare minimum of well over a thousand tons of lunar water for shielding. Such ships will almost certainly bypass Mars in favor of the several dozen low gravity icy bodies with possible liquid oceans in the outer solar system.

  5. I agree that the Berger’s analysis of the Apollo program is quite valid if you consider the actual goal of the program. What I am afraid of is more building of habitats which have to be staffed and maintained but serve no useful purpose. A cis-lunar transport system, including a logistics and fuel resupply base near the moon, is what we need first. I favor L1 or L1 since the location is relatively stable and removes the problem of matching orbital planes. Then you can build a lunar polar mining base. Once you have a supply of lunar derived propellant at L1/L2, you can reach a lot of places easily. The mining base gives you direct access to the lunar surface for science in at least one location, and access to the entire lunar surface. Rescue capability from the L1/L2 base within 12 hours would make sortie missions vastly safer than an Apollo mission was. I support multiple space goals, but to reach them we really do need that lunar propellant, as it take about 25 times more propellant to launch propellant to L1 from Earth as it does from the Moon.

    • billgamesh says:

      “What I am afraid of is more building of habitats which have to be staffed and maintained but serve no useful purpose.”

      What does that mean? A base on the Moon is what you are afraid of?

      “-a logistics and fuel resupply base near the moon, is what we need first.”

      Going direct to the Moon with the SLS is what “we” need first. What the NewSpace crowd wants is fuel depots via hobby rockets.

      “Once you have a supply of lunar derived propellant at L1/L2, you can reach a lot of places easily.”

      You can go anywhere in cislunar space from the Moon just as “easily” as from L1/L2.

  6. billgamesh says:

    The first reality the public must be made to understand concerning space is the rocket equation. Because of the finite amount of energy derived from burning oxygen and hydrogen, or other chemical combinations, escaping Earth gravity requires several separate vehicles, or “stages”, strapped together and/or stacked on top of each other. It may be possible to adopt a single stage, an airliner to space, by using microwave energy to accelerate hydrogen propellant to a much higher velocity than simple combustion, but that will require an immense space solar energy infrastructure. The best engineering solution proposed to date are the pressure-fed ocean recovered boosters originally specified for the space shuttle. In one of the worst wrong turns made by NASA after Apollo these giant reusable boosters were rejected and cheaper Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB’s) selected. This mistake must be corrected to effect a practical Super Heavy Lift Vehicle program. The present pursuit of landing back inferior lift lower stages with a gang of low thrust or single pump-fed engine(s) is a dead end.

    The second reality the public must be made to understand is that concerning Human Space Flight Beyond Low Earth Orbit (HSF-BLEO) radiation is square one. This is the elephant in the room NASA will not discuss. While racing back and forth across cislunar space is hazardous, it can be managed for the time being. For any space stations above LEO and any Human Space Flight Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (HSF-BELO) massive cosmic ray shielding in the form of lunar water and nuclear propulsion to push shielded spaceships will be required. To build the previously mentioned airliner-to-space solar power infrastructure nuclear energy will also be required to lift millions of tons of solar power components off the surface of the Moon. While GEO telecommunications are the first and presently the only real revenue generator, the future engine of expansion into space will be space solar power. This was foreseen in the early 1970’s by the prophet of space colonization, Gerard K. O’Neill.

    The third reality the public must be made to understand is that only vast governmental resources can build a cislunar infrastructure that will enable human expansion off-world. The promises being made by internet billionaire hobbyists are empty and lead nowhere. I believe the damage done by this ruinous idea of Ayn-Rand-Space libertarian state-haters taking humanity to the stars has been greatly underestimated and has set back space exploration decades. The coming change in administrations, lunar water shielded GEO space stations as the future of telecommunications, space solar power as the solution to climate change, and moving the nuclear arsenal into deep space as the cure for the hair trigger deterrence situation on Earth, all point to the Moon as the place the U.S. must commit to and in doing so lead humankind into space. The present designs for LEO and “horizon goal” of Mars are dead ends.

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