Orion in space

Have rocket, will travel - back to the Moon and beyond

Since Yuri Gagarin became the first space traveller in 1961, governments have set the human spaceflight agenda. Is this about to change?

In the past 45 years, no-one has ventured further from the Earth’s surface than the average height of the International Space Station’s orbit (about 400km), which critics have characterised as being ‘stuck in low-Earth orbit’.

Well-publicised announcements on Mars colonisation from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggest that NewSpace entrepreneurs are ready to pick up the space travel baton, but to some this is still science-fiction.

Space policy expert and professor emeritus of political science at George Washington University, John Logsdon, says: “Elon Musk’s suggestion of a million-person city on Mars is almost pure fantasy. Why would that many people want to immigrate to a hostile environment? What would be the basis for a Martian economy to sustain them? Would they eat more than potatoes? Would there be good wine to drink?”  

Clearly, there are more questions than answers. However, despite being ‘stuck in LEO’ since the final Apollo mission in 1972, governments and private enterprise have serious plans to send astronauts back to the Moon and onward to Mars.

No sensible person would suggest space travel is cheap, but advanced nations with a budget for ‘discretionary spending’ often gravitate towards a space programme. During the Cold War, space exploration was a political tool, but these days it is often more about bringing nations together. The International Space Station (ISS) is a prime example.

Chris Welch, who is professor of space engineering at the International Space University, explains that although the US and Russia have a complicated political relationship, “space is the area that brings them together”. The ISS modules were launched by both nations, but since the Space Shuttle was retired, astronauts of all cooperating nations have travelled to the station in Russian spacecraft. Indeed, Nasa has paid the Russian space agency for every seat occupied by a Nasa astronaut under a pseudo-commercial arrangement. As Welch confirms, “there have never been problems with operating the ISS, because the countries realise that international cooperation is vital”.

This cooperation is likely to continue with any future agency-led programmes, simply because it saves money, and with the end of the ISS programme expected in the mid- to late-2020s, Nasa and its international partners will have more funding for space exploration beyond LEO. Moreover, from a political perspective, international cooperation also avoids a repeat of the much-criticised ‘flags and footprints’ approach of the Apollo programme.

That said, it’s hard to get the politics out of the politician. When the Trump administration finally broke cover on its plans for future space exploration in October 2017, Vice President Mike Pence announced: “We will return Nasa astronauts to the Moon - not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond.”

More important than the unlikely event of a US-only mission was the apparent change of destination, which in recent years has been predominantly Mars. As Logsdon puts it: “It’s a 180-degree shift from no Moon to Moon first”, and makes developing an outpost on the Moon “much more likely”.

The key argument of Moon-first proponents is the persuasive fact that it takes only three days to get to our close astronomical neighbour, but up to nine months to reach Mars. The advantages are that technologies that might ultimately be used for Mars missions can be tested, repeatedly if necessary, in the Earth’s ‘back yard’ and that crew-rescue missions are at least feasible.

The basis of the space agencies’ plan rests with the so-called Deep Space Gateway, discussed at the recent International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide. Although not yet a formal ‘mission’ on Nasa’s books, the DSG is expected to include a crew-tended spaceport in lunar orbit from which missions to planetary bodies could be staged. Nasa’s expectation for the DSG is described by the agency’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, William Gerstenmaier, in terms of “different partners, both international and commercial, contributing to the gateway and using it in a variety of ways”. For example, Lockheed Martin’s ‘Mars Base Camp’ proposal was also aired at the IAC but, as with the DSG, its future depends on Nasa funding.

Key space contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin are currently pitching concepts to Nasa, based initially on the forthcoming SLS rocket and Orion capsule, but others are also involved. On 1 November, Nasa awarded study contracts for the Gateway’s power and propulsion element to the two leading contractors along with Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and Space Systems Loral. The module will generate electrical power, provide communications and use a solar-electric propulsion system to navigate between orbits. These study contracts complement those awarded in 2016 for the design of the habitat modules.

Like the ISS, the new mission is expected to be an international endeavour. Indeed, ESA is already supplying the service module for Nasa’s Orion capsule and Russia’s space agency Roscosmos signed a cooperation agreement with Nasa at the IAC. Although the agreement falls short of an actual development programme, it is designed to support research that could lead to a cis-lunar habitat (i.e. one between the Earth and the Moon). A Nasa statement said: “Both agencies... see the gateway as a strategic component of human space exploration architecture that warrants additional study.” Cosmonaut Valeri Tokarev described creating such a station as “challenging”, but added that “we must set big goals and solve them generation by generation”.

‘The Interplanetary Transport System is a very attractive prospect, but extremely unrealistic in any relevant time frame.’

John Logsdon, George Washington University

The elephant in the room, as ever, is the lack of designated funding, and while most informed observers would argue that we have the technology to return to the Moon, they question the political will. At present, Logsdon warns, “the Deep Space Gateway is an idea, not a programme. It has no dedicated funding and no clear sense of priorities to guide its design.”

There are other options in the minds of space agency heads, but for the moment that is where they remain. Arguably the best known is ESA director general Jan Woerner’s concept of a ‘Moon Village’, introduced somewhat tentatively at the 2016 IAC in Mexico. Despite Woerner’s protestations that the concept should not evoke images of “a school, a church and a bakery”, the mission and hardware-oriented space community finds it difficult not to imagine at least a Moon base. In fact, as Woerner has made efforts to explain ever since, his Moon Village is more of an “extended community” than a dwelling place, a virtual construct of sorts. He sees some members of the community building astronomical telescopes on the lunar farside, others mining ice in polar craters and others developing lunar tourism. There will be scientific bases as well, but not in the same physical location.

Logsdon characterises Woerner’s concept as “an attractive idea” and credits him with “keeping the idea not only alive, but a focal point for discussion while waiting for the United States to get engaged in a return to the Moon”.

Significantly, in common with the Deep Space Gateway, ESA and the other space agencies have yet to make the Moon Village a funded programme. It is this lack of commitment that has frustrated and galvanised the private space community, especially that small group of entrepreneurs willing to commit significant sums of money to the endeavour. As Musk said in a widely-quoted presentation at the Adelaide IAC: “It’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now. What the hell’s going on?”

Where once it was automatically assumed that human space travel was the purview of government agencies alone, it is increasingly clear they no longer hold a monopoly position. SpaceX and Orbital ATK now regularly launch resupply capsules to the ISS under commercial contract to Nasa, and SpaceX is “developing the refinements” to enable its Dragon 2 capsule to carry crew to the station and back. According to the company, its first manned test flight is expected to take place “as early as 2018”.

That same year, Musk’s SpaceX hopes to “send two private citizens on a flight around the Moon” on a mission similar to that performed by Apollo 8 in December 1968. However, delays are almost inevitable as the mission relies on the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, the inaugural launch of which has been delayed for several years and is now expected early in 2018.

Yet former PayPal entrepreneur Musk is not alone in this ‘new space club’ and it is interesting to note the number of entrepreneurs who, having made their billions in Silicon Valley and the like, are now keen to invest in space.

One example is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose rocket and space tourism company Blue Origin is developing the New Glenn orbital launcher expected to debut in 2020 and promising an even larger vehicle called New Armstrong. Bezos has invested at least $200m in a launch site and New Glenn manufacturing facility at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), and signed his first two launch customers in March: Eutelsat for a satellite launch in 2021/22 and OneWeb for five launches of its new constellation satellites. In July, at a gala dinner held at KSC beneath the giant Saturn V Moon rocket, Bezos opined: “I have won this lottery: it’s a gigantic lottery... called Amazon.com. And I’m using my lottery winnings to push us a little further into space.”

Another NewSpace company with spaceflight credentials is Bigelow Aerospace, which launched a couple of one-third-scale models of its expandable space station on refurbished Russian missiles in 2006 and 2007, and has a test module attached to the ISS [bit.ly/eandt-BEAM]. Founded by Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune with the Budget Suites of America chain, the company plans to lease its space station modules to clients such as national space agencies and has “formal expressions of interest” from six governments, including the UK’s. His business case is based on “sharing time and volume, which means not having to write a large cheque to buy the entire thing”.

Bigelow has been ready to launch his signature B330 space station (with a volume of 330m3) for years, but without a reliable and affordable crew transport system it is like a penthouse apartment with no elevator and no stairs. Thus, space entrepreneurs await the availability of Lockheed Martin’s Orion capsule, Boeing’s CST-100 ‘Starliner’ and the SpaceX Crew Dragon - and, of course, the rockets to launch them.

Unfortunately for those who are desperate to get their hardware into orbit, it is all about rocket science or rocket engineering. The larger and heavier the payload and the more distant the destination, the bigger the rocket required. It was this basic aspect of physics that drove development of the Saturn V, designed to lift a three-man orbital spacecraft and a lunar lander to the Moon.

This concept of size being important is no better illustrated than by Musk’s so-called Interplanetary Transport System, somewhat unprofessionally codenamed BFR (for Big F-ing Rocket). First announced at the Mexico IAC [bit.ly/eandt-iacmexico] as a vehicle designed with Mars colonisation in mind, Musk muddied the waters somewhat in Adelaide with the suggestion that a version of the rocket could transport passengers “anywhere on Earth” in an hour. While tabloids concentrated on this capability, John Logsdon was critical, saying: “It is a very attractive prospect, but extremely unrealistic in any relevant time frame. Musk calls all of this ‘aspirational’, which is a nice code word for ‘more-than-likely not achievable’!”

Yet returning to BFR’s main application - boosting crews and cargo to the Moon and Mars - Musk presented additional detail on engine testing, automated landing, rendezvous and docking issues. So far, he said, the Raptor engine had accumulated “more than 1,200 seconds of firing time across 42 tests” with a maximum firing duration of 100s (only 40s is required for a Mars landing, he added). Tooling for the vehicle is on order and construction facilities are being built, according to Musk.

Pointing to a slide headed ‘2022 – Cargo Missions’, Musk said: “That’s not a typo... though it is aspirational.” He went on to announce they would “start building the first ships in six to nine months” (Q2 2018), adding “I feel fairly confident that [a Mars spacecraft] could be ready in five years. Five years seems like a long time to me.” He later stated an intention to “fly four ships, two crewed” in 2024. Overall, his optimism seemed to paraphrase science-fiction author Robert Heinlein: have rocket... will travel.

However, is it really possible that Musk could launch a crew to Mars in 2024? In 2011, he was targeting a first launch for the (currently unlaunched) Falcon Heavy in 2013, and this is a rocket capable of launching 30 tonnes to LEO compared with the BFR’s promised 150 tonnes. Musk later admitted that project timelines are not his strong suit. Unsurprisingly, Logsdon agrees: “I think the phenomenon called Elon Musk is fascinating and serves as a kind of beacon of hope that there is a better space future ahead of us,” he says, but “the transition from that beacon to reality will almost certainly take longer than Elon and his supporters hope”.

Former Dean of the International Space University and space author Joseph Pelton is, however, the eternal optimist. “Today, we finally seem to have the technology and the will to leave the cradle of Earth, as Konstantin Tsiolokovsky predicted,” he says. “Thus, within the span of the 21st century, great numbers of people will finally be able to travel into the vastness of space to make humankind a multi-planet species.”

Although the future of human space travel has proved difficult to predict, the stars of public and private space aspirations appear to be in alignment. We may well be on the cusp of a new era in exploration that will make Apollo look like what it is fast becoming – ancient history.

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