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SLS illustration
The SLS could enable human missions to the Moon, if NASA and its international and commercial partners chose that direction. (credit: NASA)

Why not return to the Moon? (part 1)


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For the first time in nearly half a century, the United States will, in a matter of a few years, have the launch capability to send crewed spacecraft to the Moon. The launch vehicle that could make that possible is the Space Launch System (SLS). However, while the Moon was once a goal of exploration under the Vision for Space Exploration and Project Constellation, much further destinations are currently under consideration by NASA.

You will not find a definitive mission goal for the SLS, only nebulous statements about taking astronauts deeper into space than ever before.

There have been several incisive articles in The Space Review against the SLS, primarily against the cost of its development and projected operation. Even the former deputy administrator of NASA, Lori Garver, has now publicly come out against the SLS, stating the launch vehicle design embraces decades-old propulsion technology (which it does) and that America can do better.

For better or worse, the heavy lift launch vehicle in America’s future will be the SLS. There is, as yet, no funded mandate—that is, program—to send crews to a near Earth asteroid, and the cost of mounting a crewed mission to Mars would give the Congressional Budget Office fits. Funding for such programs are for future congressional hearings to debate.

Under NASA’s website heading “Human Spaceflight Missions” is the subheading “Future Exploration Plans” with the following items: Asteroid Redirect Initiative, Commercial Space, Orion Crew Vehicle, and Space Launch System. Only the first item is a mission: the remaining three are not. You will not find a definitive mission goal for the SLS, only nebulous statements about taking astronauts deeper into space than ever before.

NASA also has an impressive science website. The tabs to go to specific pages regarding the space agency’s primary scientific thrust. They are (bypassing the Big Questions tab) Earth, Heliophysics, Planets, Astrophysics, Missions, Technology, and Science News. Conspicuously absent is a tab for the Moon. It is only under the Heliophysics tab one finds information related to lunar scientific exploration, in the form of a 2007 report titled “Heliophysics Science and the Moon: Potential Solar and Space Physics Science for Lunar Exploration.”

However, prior to this heliophysics-centric publication, the National Research Council (NRC) published “The Scientific Context for Exploration of the Moon”. The interim report was published in 2006 and the final report was released in 2007. It laid out the scientific rationale for the resumption of exploration of the Moon. There have, in fact, been many such strategy documents published over the decades since the end of Apollo by NASA, the NRC, and other organizations supportive of America’s return to the Moon.

It is clear, judging from the above-mentioned websites and documents, the current emphasis for scientific exploration is focused on the Sun, the Earth, and the planets, with seemingly cursory attention to the Moon. However, with the development of the SLS, the Moon may yet come back into favor.

The most realistic of plausible mission destinations for crews launched aboard the SLS is hiding in plain sight. There are a number of valid arguments for the United States to return astronauts—American as well as international partners—to the Moon. There is, in fact, a dedicated organization chartered by NASA that has been trying to do that for years.

The Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG)

With the announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, there was a renewed commitment for the United States to return crews to the Moon and the architecture to do that was laid out. This, in turned, revitalized the lunar scientific community and the Global Exploration Strategy drew upon nearly 200 contributed objectives as desirable goals for future missions to the Moon.

The most realistic of plausible mission destinations for crews launched aboard the SLS is hiding in plain sight. There are a number of valid arguments for the United States to return astronauts—American as well as international partners—to the Moon.

After the Apollo program, NASA formed the Lunar Exploration Science Working Group. This group operated within NASA during the 1970s, 1980s and up to 1995. It was superseded by the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG). This latter group was assembled from the scientific community as a forum to “analyze scientific, engineering, technology and operational issues associated with lunar exploration to support the Vision for Space Exploration…” (LEAG Report, 1/19/2005). The group was to report its findings to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

That first report stated that a sustainable human presence on the Moon was essential for an effective robotic and human exploration of our solar system, utilization of in situ lunar resources (advocated for many years by Paul Spudis), and to begin to evaluate the benefits of a long-term site or sites on the Moon to develop technologies that could be applied to long term human exploration missions to Mars.

Even after the end of the Apollo missions to the Moon, ongoing scientific research of the lunar samples returned from six Apollo missions and subsequent robotic missions continued to result in hundreds of scientific papers from the 1970s through the 1990s. The formation of LEAG now called upon this community to draw up new desirable goals with respect to exploration sites and rationale for sending crews there.

The cancellation of the Vision for Space Exploration by the Obama Administration, after due study of the inherent costs of trying to implement such an ambitious program with NASA’s constrained and projected budgets, dashed hopes of astronauts ever returning to the Moon. NASA deemphasized those lunar plans and shifted its exploration focus elsewhere. LEAG, however, continued to meet annually and partnered with the Lunar and Planetary Institute to report findings and present papers.

Critics of the SLS and yet to be defined missions point to the fact NASA could not possibly fund missions back to the Moon or destinations even further. The solution to such an ambitious human spaceflight program is clearly evident in the ISS.

The annual meeting held in Greenbelt, Maryland in October 2012, for example, provided a wealth of presentations on various lunar exploration topics, including one that took its name from a line in an early Moody Blues album: The Cold-Hearted Orb that Rules the Night. Dr. Harrison Schmitt, lunar module pilot on Apollo 17 and the only trained geologist among the Apollo astronauts, presented his paper, “Field Geology at Taurus-Littrow: 40 Years and Counting.”

The British and European lunar scientific community has also remained very active in its quest to resume study of the Moon, both robotically and through human missions. Like their American counterparts, these academics and scientists desire to pursue a vigorous lunar exploration programs with boots on the regolith.

A return to the Moon would be international

When NASA initiated the Apollo program, the United States had the wealth and engineering resources to produce the Saturn V rocket with its command and service modules, all the ground facilities at Kennedy Space Center and mission control in Houston, the lunar module that would land crews on the Moon, and on the later three missions, the lunar roving vehicle that dramatically expanded the range of exploration possible. Those missions were fully funded but missions beyond Apollo 17 were cancelled as demands for funds to begin the Space Shuttle took dominance.

Critics of the SLS and yet to be defined missions point to the fact NASA could not possibly fund missions back to the Moon or destinations even further. The solution to such an ambitious human spaceflight program is clearly evident in the International Space Station orbiting the Earth. This, too, is an engineering and human spaceflight program of impressive scope and has been accomplished with superb cooperation of its international partners.

This same cooperation and commitment from the Canadian Space Agency, Russian Federal Space Agency, European Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency could be applied to ambitious exploration missions to the Moon. These countries could fund and engineer the other flight hardware NASA cannot afford to do. And, certainly, American companies that have long contributed to NASA’s exploration missions over the years could partner and benefit from the commercial possibilities such lunar exploration might provide.

Last month, NASA issued an announcement seeking proposals from the private sector for a program called Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (CATALYST). This interesting commercial prospect, and the potential for SLS to make human exploration of the Moon a hope for the future, will be explored in Part 2.


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ISPCS 2014