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Space Adventures lunar mission illustration
Plans by Space Adventures for a commercial lunar flyby mission using Soyuz hardware opens the door for the creative application of other existing systems for near-term exploration missions. (credit: Space Adventures)

Bad Moon rising


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Sometimes, the Moon seems to dominate the sky in a way that can be both surprising and a little unnerving, as if it is trying to convey a message. Hanging low in the eastern sky in the late afternoon in the days prior to Endeavour’s second attempt at its final flight, it seemed to shout, “My turn!” If indeed the Moon could speak, the voice might be English, but with a distinctly Russian accent.

If it is possible to achieve a lunar flyby with two archaic craft launched by an equally old booster attached in orbit to make one flight worthy spaceship, what else can be accomplished applying the same approach, but with more powerful rockets already available?

Fresh off NASA’s April 18th announcement of the Commercial Crew Development 2 (CCDev-2) award winners, SpaceX updated its website to announce its award, complete with press kit and video. If a picture really is worth a thousand words, one wonders at the word count derived from the final few seconds of the promotional video, which appears to show a Dragon capsule descending to the Martian surface. In and of itself, yet another aerospace company video is barely worth the word count in a haiku, but then again, this is SpaceX, and there is more to the story. While specifically designed to meet NASA’s commercial resupply services and commercial crew competitions, SpaceX has made no secret of the fact that the Dragon capsule is ultimately intended for further horizons. It is not, however, the only orbital capsule that may carry occupants well beyond its original limits.

According to Space Adventures, the Russians are finally going to make it to the Moon—or at least around the Moon—on a Russian Soyuz with one pilot (presumably Russian) and two passengers. The company, which earned its credibility with the pioneering launch of the first space tourist Dennis Tito a decade ago, says that it has already booked one passenger for the proposed flight and is waiting on another.

As envisioned by Space Adventures, the Soyuz would launch into LEO and rendezvous with an Earth departure stage consisting of a second Soyuz habitation module connected to a Blok DM upper stage. Originally designed for the Soviet lunar program, the Russian built liquid oxygen/kerosene upper stage would launch the craft on a free return trajectory around the Moon. According to Space Adventures, the sale of the second seat, at a ticket price of $150 million, would secure the launch, which could then occur as early as 2015.

While the headlines about expensive joyrides will almost write themselves, NASA and in particular the US Congress might want to take note. On one level, the event would simply be repeating what the US accomplished in 1968 with the Christmas Eve flight of Apollo 8 around the Moon, albeit without entering lunar orbit. However, on another level, the mission would also clearly mark several firsts, including the first time in manned spaceflight where two separately launched vehicles rendezvoused for flight beyond Earth orbit, as well as a dramatic first for space tourism.

It is noteworthy then, that lunar flyby also happens to be the very first goal along the “Flexible Path” as defined by the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (aka the Augustine Committee). With a Russian pilot, Russian hardware, and passengers of unknown origin at the moment, this hardly qualifies as a triumph of American exceptionalism.

If recent history is any guide, the trip is sure to generate a very mixed press reaction. The temptation to deride the trip because it did not actually land on the Moon would have the effect of undermining the logic behind the Flexible Path. After all, it eschews landing on the Moon as well, at least in the initial phases, opting instead to visit various locations in cislunar space and possibly an asteroid. In the wake of a privately funded flight, detractors would find it very easy to question why the US is spending billions of dollars to accomplish what to all intents is the same as what two tourists accomplished for far, far less—and on old Russian hardware at that.

Alternatively, it begs another question that might also be difficult to answer. If it is possible to achieve a lunar flyby with two archaic craft launched by an equally old booster attached in orbit to make one flight worthy spaceship, what else can be accomplished applying the same approach, but with more powerful rockets already available?

While SpaceX’s short term goals are by necessity focused on immediate business obligations, the potential inherent in its pricing is likely provoking brainstorming sessions among some very smart people.

The concept, after all, is hardly novel. Orbital rendezvous was a key feature of the Constellation flight architecture, but suffered the fate of the program as a whole. It faced limited opportunity for utilization throughout the shuttle era due to a very understandable prohibition on launching potentially explosive liquid-fueled upper stage engines in the shuttle payload bay. Now, however, the combination of the end of the shuttle era and a reduction in launch prices initiated by SpaceX is opening a range of possibilities. Regrettably, Congress is insisting that NASA build a heavy lift vehicle, even though with no mission and thus no mission driven requirements. Congress is thus rejecting the alternative of orbital docking for missions launched beyond LEO, as if it did not exist at all, even as the shuttle finishes construction of the massive International Space Station, built one piece, and one launch at a time.

Fortunately, perhaps, Russia suffers no such delusion. The truth, of course, is that both Soyuz rocket and spacecraft, while definitely long in the tooth, are highly reliable craft that have earned the right to take a victory lap around the Moon—an event worthy of their history for which the Space Shuttle will sadly have no equivalent. It is the fact that they are comparatively affordable, and the shuttle is not, which makes it possible for the history to be made by private citizens. It will probably not the last time.

As part of a spirited explanation of his company’s low launch prices, (because anybody who ruins a party had better have a good explanation) Elon Musk posted a response aimed at detractors who continue to claim that SpaceX pricing must be either temporary in nature as loss leader, “teaser rate” prices, or based on unrealistic flight rate assumptions which will fail to materialize, leading inevitably to escalating prices. Of particular note was a reaffirmation of his company’s commitment to pursuing reusability in order to drive prices even lower. While not addressed in his April 5th press conference introducing the Falcon Heavy booster, the new launch vehicle may actually be a critical step in the direction of reusability. The rocket’s defining characteristic is propellant cross flow, allowing the strap on boosters to exhaust themselves at a lower velocity and altitude than a Falcon 9 core, presumably presenting an easier challenge to recover.

While SpaceX’s short term goals are by necessity focused on immediate business obligations, the potential inherent in its pricing is likely provoking brainstorming sessions among some very smart people. One could only hope that, numbered among them, are NASA management and at least a few congressional staff. If and when those short-term goals are accomplished, the company could find itself poised to enable a string of space firsts. It’s not just about SpaceX however.

Thanks in great part to NASA’s leg up in enabling commercial re-supply and commercial crew programs, it seems likely that by 2015 or 2016—the same year that could see a lunar flyby in a sort of belated triumph of Soviet-era space hardware—we could also see a comparative boomtown of American commercial space assets, likely including at least two reusable crew transfer vehicles capable of flying on multiple rockets. Equally important, if Bigelow Aerospace manages to make good on its goal of launching that company’s first station module, new crew transport craft will have a destination other than ISS or free flight. Better yet, the advent of expandable structures will go a long way towards negating the volumetric restrictions imposed by anything than other than the payload fairing on a super heavy launch vehicle. They will, in fact, leverage the capability of existing launch vehicles in much the same way as orbital rendezvous is doing for Space Adventures.

We are beginning to enter an era that holds great danger to NASA if its planners, and Congress, are not very careful. Quite simply, once what is possible becomes affordable, even to only a few, private operators are likely to move more quickly and creatively than their governmental counterparts.

The US will in fact have the basic tools in hand, or in short order, to accomplish much of what was laid out in the first part of the Flexible Path. Lunar flyby, lunar orbit, as well as Lagrange points are all available for the simple expedient of beginning with the concept of orbital rendezvous. What clearly will not be in the US inventory at that time, however, is the congressionally mandated 130-ton heavy lift vehicle. So the question arises, is it possible that some of these goals may be accomplished by wayfaring tourists or other private interests before NASA astronauts? While mounting an asteroid mission lasting several months is presumably out of the question, following up on a lunar flyby mission by going into lunar orbit requires just the addition of a propulsion module.

As highlighted by even the possibility of the Space Adventures flight, we are beginning to enter an era that holds great danger to NASA if its planners, and Congress, are not very careful. Quite simply, once what is possible becomes affordable, even to only a few, private operators are likely to move more quickly and creatively than their governmental counterparts. This is true even when accounting for the fact that virtually all space flight still occurs on hardware developed by national governments as in the case of Soyuz, or with significant government assurance in varying degrees as in the case of SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and others. This will inevitably have the effect of undermining the rationale for government programs when they are likely to be construed as similar in nature. In a different budget environment, NASA might easily, and even justifiably, be able to dismiss such comparisons, but there is absolutely nothing on the horizon to indicate the external budget pressure is going to do anything but get worse.

That danger will become manifest if SpaceX succeeds in launching the Falcon Heavy. While the Space Adventures lunar flyby is at the extreme limit of what can be accomplished with the Soyuz, at half the lift capacity of the Saturn V, the Falcon Heavy will be capable of supporting any series of expeditions short of a manned Mars landing, and even that is not absolutely out of the question (see “A transorbital railroad to Mars”, The Space Review, May 23, 2011). One way out of this dilemma is to further build on what Lou Friedman recognized (see “Public-private partnerships for space”, The Space Review, May 9, 2011) as a growing trend in space robotic exploration as exemplified by the Google Lunar X Prize.

Nevertheless, the short term is where the problem lies. According to a report in the Orlando Sentinel, undisclosed “senior NASA management” is considering a “Shuttle derived test flight campaign” using remaining shuttle components to assemble a rocket similar to that proposed previously as Direct. The program could last as long as eight years and would cost $10 billion through 2017. Somewhere along the way NASA would host a competition for the 130-ton booster Congress is actually demanding, which, based on the time frame cited in the story, presumably would not fly until after 2020. The thinking behind that approach is apparently that, although it is not necessarily the rocket they want, it would appease space state senators by maintaining a significant number of shuttle-related jobs. Critics, however, are already pointing out that this represents an overt attempt to reward increasingly uncompetitive legacy contractors and substantially stack the deck in favor of the same contractors in competing for the larger booster. If the program did not accomplish anything significant, it would also pointlessly waste the remaining stock of fully reusable Space Shuttle Main Engines, even though, as we have learned from the Russians, old engines have a way of finding new lives.

Even if Congress maintains its “because it’s the law” approach to launch vehicle design and forces NASA to proceed with the larger rocket anyway, time is not on their side. It is quite likely that Falcon Heavy, Dragon, CST-100, Bigelow, as well as others may all be in orbit, and the first lunar tourists will be back on Earth celebrating their flyby anniversary with vodka shots, before the Congressionally mandated booster makes it off the pad for the first time. Factor in several more years before the booster can actually loft anything interesting, and it’s anybody’s guess what creative minds may have accomplished by that point. By the time it finally embarks, NASA may find the flexible path to be a road well traveled.

The fact remains that SpaceX, Bigelow, Boeing, and others all need NASA, and without a shuttle, NASA obviously needs them as well. What neither need, however, is precisely what Congress is doing now: forcing the agency to attempt to develop hardware it cannot afford for an agenda that it will not define.

On the other hand, if the test flight program is authorized, it could buy time for NASA to escape from the constraints of the current politically designed launch vehicle and instead engage in a more productive analysis of the options that appear to be opening up in launch vehicles, spacecraft, and habitable structures. In this context, while hardly money well spent, the effort might at least prevent the much greater waste that would otherwise ensue. That NASA could instead use the same time and funding to jumpstart lunar exploration or conduct a Mars sample return mission only highlights the opportunity costs of a national space program that inexplicably, but continually, cannot say where it wants to go and why. That is perhaps why it is so refreshing to see private individuals state with an utter lack of ambiguity that they simply want to see the far side the Moon, and then find a way to make it so.

As the exorbitant cost of the possible lunar flyby underscores, commercial spaceflight is not yet open for business, and the current economy is not creating all that many new billionaires. The fact remains that SpaceX, Bigelow, Boeing, and others all need NASA, and without a shuttle, NASA obviously needs them as well. What neither need, however, is precisely what Congress is doing now: forcing the agency to attempt to develop hardware it cannot afford for an agenda that it will not define. Pursuing this course is not merely a matter of risking the rationale for the launch vehicle, it is also risking the rationale for the agency.

If Congress wants NASA to build a launch vehicle whose only capability beyond that likely to be otherwise available is going to Mars, then it needs to state that purpose and provide the funding, as well as a reasonable explanation of why now. The full title of the Flexible Path, after all, was “The flexible path to Mars.” If this is the case, then the next step, and the place in history that will apparently be purchased by tourists, may well be worth the asking price.


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