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Bigelow lunar base illustration
Bigelow Aerospace, which has long-term plans for human lunar bases, is one of several companies interested in lunar exploration. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Why not return to the Moon? (part 2)

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As covered in Part 1 of this article last week, the progress on the Space Launch System (SLS) and its eventual capabilities is reviving interest in a potential return to the Moon for America’s human spaceflight program. There is currently no mission mandate by NASA to do this, of course. The fully funded SLS program, however, now makes such a debate realistic, which was a moot point with the end of the Apollo era and during the long Space Shuttle era.

However, there have been other recent developments apart from SLS, and efforts have been ongoing that point the way to utilizing the Moon as a commercial, science and exploration destination.

Recently, the NASA-chartered Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) sent to members of Congress a cover letter with a flyer titled “Destination Moon.” The flyer states, “The Moon is the most accessible destination for realizing commercial, exploration, and scientific objectives beyond low Earth orbit.”

LEAG states the value of human exploration of the Moon to have four primary benefits:

  1. As an open gateway to the Solar System, where “lunar resources can be used for fuel and life support for operations in Earth-Moon space and for voyages to Mars and beyond.”
  2. Enabling new scientific discoveries on the lunar surface to support studies and sample analysis to better determine events within the Solar System and better understand the Moon itself.
  3. Pioneering development of new technologies in hardware and infrastructure to expand commercial involvement that would also provide benefits on Earth.
  4. To promote international partnerships to make accesses to destinations beyond low Earth orbit available to other nations.

These four points should all sound familiar to those who have read past documents issued by NASA such as “Pioneering the Space Frontier” (1986), “America at the Threshold” (1991), and “A Journey to Inspire, Innovate, and Discover” (2004).

“The Moon is the most accessible destination for realizing commercial, exploration, and scientific objectives beyond low Earth orbit,” states a LEA flyer.

On December 19, 2013, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) sent a letter to President Obama after the successful robotic landing of China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft and the deployment of its small rover, named Yutu or “Jade Rabbit.” In the letter, he called for the White House to hold a conference this year to discuss a mission concept for a US-led human mission to return to the Moon.

“As China prepares to send a series of increasingly advanced rovers to the moon in preparation for what most observers believe will ultimately be human missions,” Rep. Wolf wrote, “many are asking why the U. S. is not using this opportunity to lead our international partners in an American-led return to the moon.”

The Obama Administration has had no interest in such plans and made that abundantly clear with the effective defunding of the entire Constellation program. It was only through the concerted efforts of specific individuals within Congress, NASA, and aerospace contractors that the Orion capsule was saved and the Ares V went through a design reboot to emerge with the rather uninspiring SLS moniker. That descriptor, too, was a political decision designed not to arouse the mythical ethos that surrounded the choice of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I will hazard a guess that, in a few years, the SLS might just adopt a more evocative and appropriate name.

NASA’s announcement of Lunar CATALYST

On January 16, 2014, NASA issued a press release announcing its interest in partnership opportunities for American commercial lunar landing capabilities. The formal announcement introduced NASA’s new Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown, or Lunar CATALYST.

NASA is seeking commercial Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with companies it has long partnerships with as well as new, pioneering startups. However, there are no monetary awards for this program, so why would commercial aerospace firms have interest in it?

“As NASA pursues an ambitious plan for humans to explore an asteroid and Mars, U. S. industry will create opportunities for NASA to advance new technologies on the moon,” Greg Williams, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, explained in the release. “Our strategic investments in the innovations of our commercial partners have brought about successful commercial resupply of the International Space Station, to be followed in the coming years by commercial crew. Lunar CATALYST will help us advance our goals to reach farther destinations.”

“Commercial lunar landing capabilities could help prospect for and utilize these resources” such as water ice, said NASA’s Crusan.

To be specific, NASA is interested in discovering the means to potentially extract water and oxygen from processing lunar material in close proximity to Earth in order to be able to mount exploratory missions beyond the Moon. Initially, NASA would like to see commercial efforts with sample return, resource prospecting, geophysical network deployment, and other technology capabilities. The agency is considering small landers that can carry between 30 to 100 kilograms of payload, and medium landers carrying payloads between 250 and 500 kilograms.

Jason Crusan, director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems, said in the release, “Commercial lunar landing capabilities could help prospect for and utilize these resources.” In addition, Lunar CATALYST embraces the shared exploration goals of the Global Exploration Roadmap that includes NASA and 11 other space agencies.

NASA held a pre-proposal teleconference on January 27 to explain the program to prospective industry members and answer their questions. (The Pre-proposal Conference document is available from the Lunar CATALYST website.) The deadline for proposals to NASA is March 17. Announcement of selections will be made in April with the goal of having the SAAs signed by May. NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division will manage the Lunar CATALYST program.

What is NASA bringing to the table in order to partner with wining commercial firms? The agency says it will provide technical personnel, its resources at various NASA centers, equipment loans and powerful software programs specific to spacecraft design and mission simulation.

The lunar lander payloads listed could easily be launch aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta or Atlas, a SpaceX Falcon, or even less powerful launch vehicles. An Athena launch vehicle successfully sent the 158-kilogram Lunar Prospector and its Star Trans-lunar Injection Module to a lunar orbit mission in 1998.

The SSA and potential commercial providers

The United States has already passed the threshold of commercial viability in space exploration, as SpaceX is making abundantly clear. Another company, Golden Spike, seeks to send not robotic landers but crewed missions to the lunar surface (see “Turning science fiction to science fact: Golden Spike makes plans for human lunar missions”, The Space Review, December 10, 2012). Last September, astronaut James Lovell wrote that, in speaking with the chairman do the board of Golden Spike, Gerry Griffin, and learning of the impressive list of board members, “I became convinced that we truly are on the cusp of a brand new era of commercial lunar space travel.” (see “Back to the Moon, commercially”, The Space Review, September 30, 2013).

The success of these commercial lunar ventures could spur the design and construction of landers for human crews. If—some would say when—that happens, the SLS and the Orion capsule will be capable of taking them there.

On December 10, 2013, Golden Spike announced it was forming a partnership with Honeybee Robotics to design unmanned rovers, which would be, according to its press release, “capable of enhancing the next human missions to the Moon.” Honeybee Robotics provided the rock abrasion tool for NASA’s twin Mars Exploration Rovers, and, most recently, the Sample Manipulation System for the Mars Science Laboratory. Golden Spike intends to send unmanned spacecraft to the Moon as precursor missions to eventual human missions and could take part in the Lunar CATALYST program.

Another key player in commercial lunar exploration plans is Bigelow Aerospace. Founder and president Robert Bigelow is already working to provide its expandable habitats in low-Earth orbit, with an interest in going on the Moon or even further in space. Bigelow is preparing a habitat for launch to the International Space Station in 2015 for a two-year technology demonstration.

Lunar CATALYST will certainly draw other potential commercial partners with NASA to design a new generation of robotic landers. It will take an undetermined number of years to design, develop, and prepare these new spacecraft for their missions to the Moon. The success of these commercial lunar ventures could spur the design and construction of landers for human crews. If—some would say when—that happens, the SLS and the Orion capsule will be capable of taking them there.