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Dragon 2 to the Moon
NASA should cooperate with SpaceX’s commercial lunar mission plans to ensure their success, rather than compete with an SLS/Orion flight. (credit: SpaceX)

Human flight around the Moon: An opportunity to cooperate, not compete


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On February 15, acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that a feasibility study is underway regarding the use of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion to perform a human flight around the moon by the end of 2019. Less than two weeks later, on February 27, SpaceX announced plans to send two tourists on flight around the moon by the end of 2018 using the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle and the Dragon 2 capsule. It appears that human missions beyond Earth orbit will finally be resuming soon after a hiatus of more than 45 years.

But is there a need for two nearly identical missions on different launch vehicles happening at about the same time? No.

One cannot help but notice the remarkable similarity between NASA’s proposed mission and that of SpaceX. Both missions would conduct a trans-lunar free return trajectory burn that would loop around the Moon and return to Earth. Some details are different, such as the specific of the trajectories under consideration. Also, though both missions would be flying two people, the NASA mission would be flying two career astronauts, while the SpaceX mission would be flying two tourists.

But is there a need for two nearly identical missions on different launch vehicles happening at about the same time? No: one mission would do the job of revitalizing the space program and inspiring a new generation of scientists and engineers the way the Apollo program did back in the 1960s and 1970s. Would the competition to see which mission launches first apply pressure to cut corners on safety? This is a certainly a concern. Are two nearly identical missions wasteful of taxpayer’s money? Yes. Might NASA and SpaceX join forces to conduct a single mission that is both safer and less expensive to the taxpayer than what NASA and SpaceX could accomplish with separate missions? Yes, and that is what should happen.

The SpaceX effort currently is purely a private initiative that will occur irrespective of what the government does. So, the question is whether NASA should abandon the proposed plan to fly astronauts on Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) and instead join forces with SpaceX to help ensure that its mission flies safely. This is what should happen, since it will be less expensive to the taxpayer and much safer too.

Let’s look at the cost to the taxpayer. Flying a crew on EM-1 would require many changes to this mission. First, the second stage of the SLS, the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage (ICPS) would have to be human rated, which would add about $150 million to the cost of the mission. NASA had planned to avoid this expense by flying the ICPS only once, then switch to the more powerful human-rated Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) for EM-2 and subsequent missions.

Second, NASA would have to add a life support system to EM-1. But there is the problem that the full Orion life support system likely won’t be ready in time. Thus, NASA would need to cobble together a one-off life support system, another added expense.

Third, the EM-1 mission as currently planned would use an inert Launch Abort System (LAS), which would have to be changed to an active LAS if a crew flies on board Orion. But there is the problem that the necessary flight test of the LAS is currently scheduled to occur after the EM-1 mission. The schedule for the flight test of the LAS would need to be moved forward so it occurs before EM-1. Furthermore, this flight test planned to use the same Orion capsule as was used for the EM-1 mission. Since you don’t want to fly the first human Orion mission with a reused spacecraft, a different Orion capsule would be needed.

All these changes would not only add greatly to the cost to the taxpayer, but they would also affect the launch schedule. The required changes mean that the EM-1 flight would occur no earlier than late 2019. But to meet the late 2019 date, both the decision to proceed and a large infusion of funds would be needed almost immediately.

The SpaceX mission would be safer than the proposed Orion mission because both the launch vehicle and the Dragon 2 capsule will have undergone much more flight-testing.

Next, let’s look at the safety issue of a human EM-1 mission. It is not just that EM-1 would launch on the first flight of the SLS, but also the Orion capsule has not been adequately flight-tested. A short uncrewed flight of the Orion capsule was made in December 2014, when a Delta IV Heavy rocket boosted the capsule to a high Earth orbit for a five-hour mission. However, this flight only orbited the earth and only obtained 80 percent of the velocity of a return from the Moon. It also did not include the service module, which is the other critical component of the Orion spacecraft. The service module is being built by the European Space Agency and will not be flight-tested before EM-1. If a problem occurred at the wrong time, it would be a couple of days, or longer, before Orion could return to Earth.

The SpaceX mission would be safer than the proposed Orion mission because both the launch vehicle and the Dragon 2 capsule will have undergone much more flight-testing. The first flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch vehicle will occur as early as this summer. It is likely that other Falcon Heavy flights will occur as well before the human lunar mission. Barring unforeseen delays, the first uncrewed flight of the Dragon 2 capsule will be flown to the ISS in November this year, followed by a human flight to the ISS in May of 2018. It is possible that other human Dragon 2 flights to the ISS will occur prior to the human lunar flight as well. Other uncrewed flights of the Dragon 2 carrying cargo to and from the ISS may also be made in 2018 and beyond.

But the safety of the SpaceX mission could be further improved with the involvement of NASA. NASA and SpaceX should establish a public-private partnership for the human lunar flight. Unlike the cost-plus contracts used by the SLS and Orion, with public-private partnerships the private companies share in both the development and operational costs. They do this in the hope of obtaining other business in addition to the NASA contracts. And a huge opportunity in the space tourism business is looming.

The cost of public-private partnerships to the taxpayer is a small fraction of that of the cost-plus contracts, and with private involvement there is a lot more innovation as well. Public-private partnerships have already been used at NASA with incredible success. Public-private partnerships brought us the Falcon 9 and Antares launch vehicles and the Dragon and Cygnus commercial cargo vehicles. Public-private partnerships will also soon bring us the Dragon 2 and Boeing Starliner commercial crew capsules and the Dream Chaser commercial cargo spaceplane.

With a public-private partnership, NASA can ensure that the human lunar flight meets their safety standards. Elon Musk is a risk taker and may not on his own volition take needed safety precautions. For instance, it is notable that, in SpaceX’s announcement of the tourist mission, they made no mention of an uncrewed flight around the Moon preceding the flight with tourists. Also, it would be unwise to conduct the first lunar flight with tourist astronauts instead of highly trained career astronauts.

With a public-private partnership, NASA can ensure that the human lunar flight meets their safety standards. Elon Musk is a risk taker and may not on his own volition take needed safety precautions.

NASA should fund SpaceX with a public-private partnership arrangement so that not only is there an uncrewed lunar flight preceding the human lunar flight, but also so that NASA astronauts make the first flight around the Moon. Four NASA astronauts are already undergoing extensive training to learn all the systems and the intricacies of flying the Dragon 2. These two changes would greatly improve the safety of the mission. The last thing we need is a disaster on the first flight beyond Earth orbit since Apollo.

These changes to the SpaceX mission plans would be accomplished with less cost to the taxpayer than the changes needed to bring about a human EM-1 flight. There is enough time that, even with these changes, a human flight around the moon could easily be accomplished during the first term of the Trump Administration. And it is a much safer way forward.


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