NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has strongly ruled out missions to land on the Moon as part of NASA’s exploration roadmap, claiming any future political re-direction to return humans to the lunar surface would send the Agency “back to square one”. Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman have completed their Lunar Lander Study on behalf of the Golden Spike Company.
No Go To The Moon:
In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, the Vision For Space Exploration (VSE) provided NASA with a roadmap to retire the Space Shuttle fleet after the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) was completed, prior to focusing on a return to the surface of the Moon via the Constellation Program (CxP).
“Moon, Mars and Beyond” was the goal, with a return to the Lunar surface classed as a required stepping stone on the path to Mars.
Following the demise of the Constellation Program, the focus switched to missions to visit a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA), before once again taking aim on what has consistently been NASA’s big goal of sending humans to Mars.
This new roadmap is still – and is likely to remain for some time – under construction, with only Exploration Mission -1 (EM-1) all-but set in stone for the debut launch of the Space Launch System (SLS), sending an uncrewed Orion on a fly-by of the Moon in 2017.
Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2) was to be tasked with a crewed version of EM-1, on a slightly longer mission that allowed for several orbits of the Moon.
However, that mission has since been re-purposed into an ambitious flight of an Orion crew to “get hands on” with a captured asteroid.
The following missions for SLS and Orion remain undefined, with the SLS manifest to 2032 (L2) only showing placeholders for one SLS launch per year, as the vehicle evolves from its 70mT capability, through to 105mT and eventually its fully evolved state as a 130mT capable Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV), required for what NASA claim will be missions to Mars in the mid-2030s.
It is likely NASA will undertake yet more ambitious NEA missions in the mid 2020s, venturing further out into deep space, as they validate the technology required for keeping a crew alive on missions lasting hundreds of days.
There also remains the possibility NASA will further evaluate the potential for an Exploration Platform, or Gateway, constructed at the ISS and sent out via Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) to the EML2 location. However, such a facility is yet to receive any notable political support.
Although missions to the lunar surface have never been fully promoted by NASA’s leadership since the end of the Constellation Program, the option has always been there, as seen via the internal exploration roadmap evaluation process.
Internal documentation placed the potential for NASA missions to the Moon within the ESD Concept Of Operations (Con Ops) presentations (L2) – listing it alongside the main NEA (Earth Earth Asteroid) missions under the Architectural Timeframe Design Reference Missions (DRMs).
“Lunar Surface Sortie (LSS): Lands four crew members on the surface of the Moon in the equatorial or Polar Regions and returns them to Earth,” noted one such example within the ESD Con Ops presentation.
“Expected drivers include: MPCV (Orion) operations in LLO (Low Lunar Orbit) environment, MPCV uncrewed ops phase, MPCV delta V requirements, RPOD (Rendezvous, Proximity Operations and Docking), MPCV number of habitable days.”
However, footsteps back on the Moon – at least via the boots of NASA astronauts – appears to be no longer a viable option, with General Bolden throwing a large amount of cold water on the prospect this year.
Per the issues, almost all related to NASA’s restrictive budget, General Bolden recently provided one example as to why NASA won’t be returning to the Moon, namely the apparent cost of the Lander.
During the Constellation Program, the lander – known as Altair – was already into the planning stages at the related NASA centers. However, Altair died, along with its launch vehicle – the Ares V – when CxP ended.
After being asked about the possibility of inserting lunar surface sorties into the exploration roadmap at a recent congressional hearing, General Bolden made the claim it would cost NASA between $8-10 billion to resurrect Altair through to the point of achieving lunar landings with it.
General Bolden followed up his comments during this week’s Explore Mars event, in which he praised the current – albeit yet undefined – roadmap as “realistic, affordable and sustainable”, providing the path remained focused on Mars in the 2030s.
“We need to try and get all of us on to the same sheet of music in terms of the roadmap,” noted the NASA head. “(If we) have someone in the next administration who could take us back to a human lunar mission, it’s all over, we will go back to square one.
“I believe (that would mean we) would have missed the second greatest opportunity for humanity to go on to deep space and do what humans have wanted to do for hundreds of years.”
Golden Spike Lander:
While NASA’s current leadership are against returning to the Moon, the Golden Spike company – formed in 2010 and led by Gerry Griffin and Alan Stern – are aiming to provide a commercial opportunity for people to set foot on the lunar surface as early as 2020.
With the goal of raising $7-8 billion – an amount that would fund all the required systems development and integration, a careful multi-mission flight test series, and a healthy level of project reserves – Golden Spike made their plans known to the public last December.
The announcement included notional graphics, including a sporty looking hardware, before revealing they had arranged a feasibility study into a new commercial lunar lander, an effort that has been undertaken by Northrop Grumman Corporation.
That study was completed this week, with Northrop Grumman providing an overview of their lunar expedition architecture that includes a novel new, low-mass ascent stage concept dubbed “Pumpkin.”
After evaluating 180 lunar lander cases for various options and sensitivities – including loiter, staging, propellants, engines, surface duration, surface cargo and technology basis – the study determined that a set of options, using a minimalist pressurized ascent pod and descent stage with a surface habitat, was shown to be viable.
The study also showed the minimalist ascent pod with surface habitat concept could fit inside a five-meter diameter fairing payload envelope.
“This concept has significant operability advantages for surface exploration since the surface habitat can be segmented to isolate lunar dust and provides more space for living and for selecting the most valuable lunar return samples,” noted Martin McLaughlin, Northrop Grumman’s study lead.
“We affectionately call the minimalist ascent pod ‘Pumpkin’ because of its spherical shape and because it returns the crew to orbit after the surface exploration party.”
The study also determined there are numerous options for cryogenic propellants, when compared with storable propellants, but that multiple storable propellant options are possible. Options with cryogenic propellants have higher performance, but are more difficult to contain for the GSC mission duration than storable propellants, such as those used in the Apollo program.
“Northrop Grumman has done an exemplary job and helped advance Golden Spike’s technical approach to renewed human lunar exploration,” added Mr. Stern. “The study’s results are very exciting and will help enable a new wave of human lunar exploration that Golden Spike plans.”
(Images: NASA, NG, Golden Spike and L2)
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