Neil Armstrong's first step

Rebooting Moon travel: taking the next lunar step

Image credit: Mark Williamson

It has been 50 years since Neil Armstrong made exploration history with that first of many boot-prints on the Moon and since 1972, when the last of the 12 Moonwalkers left the surface of our nearest planetary body, no-one has returned. Is it time to put those lunar boots back on?

One dictionary definition of exploration is “an organised trip into unfamiliar regions, especially for scientific purposes”. The exploration of space certainly fits the definition in terms of unfamiliar regions, but the ‘trip’ is often made by automated, rather than manned, vehicles for cost and safety reasons. To many in the space fraternity this is half-hearted exploration, because it lacks the essential essence of exploration as an intrinsic human activity; although it references a science-fiction cliché, they would prefer “to boldly go where no-one has gone before”.

Of course, space exploration has never existed in a cultural vacuum where exploration is conducted ‘for exploration’s sake’; it has long been a political undertaking, in which governments seek to ensure bragging rights over one solar system body or another. Historically, this is typified by the ‘Moon Race’ between the USA and the Soviet Union, but even today we see China and India posturing with Moon or Mars probes and, more recently, anti-satellite missiles.

Politics aside, it is also clear that exploration is only ever a ‘pure science’ for a limited time, as it is usually a precursor to commercial or industrial development. As with familiar forms of terrestrial exploration that discover new oil reserves or plant species with medical properties, space exploration has, for many years, applied orbital resources to global satellite communications, navigation and weather observation... while the future promises anything from space tourism to lunar mining.

Much of industry and commerce here on Earth is automated and increasingly run by artificial intelligence (AI), and any Moon-based industry and commerce will be too. However, establishing the requisite infrastructure will – at least for the exploratory phase – require a human presence or ‘boots on the ground’.

It’s 50 years since humans began to explore the Moon on their own two feet, and although successive US presidents have called for a return to the Moon, the US Congress has been stalwart in not providing the money. Why this fascination with the Moon? Apart from the fact that it’s a clearly visible goal in our night skies, in travel time it’s only three days away, compared with nine months for Mars – if anything goes wrong, a return to Earth or a rescue is far easier from the Moon.

Practical reasons for developing a lunar presence include mining minerals or water ice, scientific research (including radio astronomy from the far side, which is shielded from terrestrial radio interference), and space tourism, such as stays in lunar-orbiting hotels and ‘field trips’ to historic landing sites. The Moon is also seen as a ‘technology proving ground’ for exploration itself, in particular for the eventual manned exploration of Mars.

Until 26 March 2019, this was little more than a theoretical space manifesto, but on that day US Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise speech at the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, that directed Nasa to land humans on the Moon by 2024, four years earlier than planned. “It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years,” he said, adding: “To be clear: the first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.”

Although, as usual with these political statements, there were few technical or financial details. Pence did suggest a specific destination, which chimes with received wisdom that exploration has practical applications. “Nasa already knows that the lunar south pole holds great scientific, economic and strategic value,” he said, “but now it’s time to commit to go there.”

The great attraction of the lunar south pole is the water ice that, from interpretations of lunar spacecraft data, is believed to lie in permanently shadowed craters across the region. Apart from its obvious uses for humans, water could – in an industrialised process – be converted to liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen rocket propellants and used for further solar system exploration.

Returning astronauts to the Moon within Pence’s timescale would require a significant acceleration of the somewhat lethargic development of Nasa’s Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket designed to get Americans back into space on a domestic vehicle (since the Shuttle was retired in 2011, the US has had to buy seats on the Russian Soyuz).

Recognising that the first launch is in danger of slipping from 2020 to 2021, Pence issued a thinly-veiled warning to Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS core stage: “If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones who will.”

Pence even opened the door to alternative vehicles: “If commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the Moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be,” he said. “The President has directed Nasa... to accomplish this goal by any means necessary [so] we must focus on the mission over the means.”

The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry group whose members include many companies involved in Nasa’s exploration plans, issued a note of caution: “Though we support the focus of this White House on deep-space exploration and the sense of urgency...” it stated, “bold plans must be matched by bold resources...” In other words, put your money where your mouth is!

‘It would be so inspiring for humanity to see humanity return to the Moon!’

Elon Musk, Space X

The general assumption has always been that it is governments that fund and carry out space exploration, but the rise of so-called ‘NewSpace’ companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, has changed this mindset. SpaceX, in particular, has succeeded in embedding itself into the developing spaceport known as Kennedy Space Center and now leases one of the former Apollo/Shuttle launch pads for its Falcon Heavy rockets.

To some extent, the development of NewSpace companies has relied on the personal drive and deep pockets of individual entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in IT and other tech-based industries. Increasingly, however, these companies are funding their own private developments by becoming contractors in the conventional sense: they now offer services to Nasa. Arguably the most successful example is SpaceX’s development of its Dragon capsule to deliver supplies to the International Space Station and its future intention to deliver crews. There is no fundamental technological reason why this should not be extended to delivering exploration missions to the Moon, as Pence’s comment implies.

In response to the speech, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted: “It would be so inspiring for humanity to see humanity return to the Moon!” Asked later if his next-generation launcher and proposed ‘Starship’ upper stage would be ready by 2024, Musk said: “I think so... worth giving it our best shot!”

Musk’s famous optimism apart, it seems unlikely that the Nasa Orion capsule, currently under development by Lockheed Martin (with a service model supplied by Airbus on behalf of the European Space Agency), would be scrapped at this late stage. The future for the Lunar Orbital Platform (former Deep Space Gateway) is less certain: this Moon-orbiting space station, communications hub and staging post for planetary exploration is not yet fully funded and has not progressed far beyond the PowerPoint stage.

Crucially, also uncertain is the method for transporting crews to the lunar surface: the last design for a lunar lander – the Altair vehicle, which was part of the Constellation project – was cancelled a decade ago. Following Pence’s speech, Lockheed Martin made efforts to address this when it revealed it had been working on concepts for an “accelerated landing schedule” that could use a lander based on Orion structures, avionics and propulsion systems. Without dedicated funding, however, the US government’s aspirational announcement remains a destination without a road map.

David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, ably summarised the mix of frustration and confusion among international partners. Speaking at an event in Washington DC, he showed a Nasa chart from February 2019 depicting how SLS and other rockets could enable a human lunar landing in 2028. “This is Nasa’s architecture for getting to the Moon when I woke up this morning,” he said. “Maybe it’s evolved over the course of the day.”

Later that day, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed that the Agency is undertaking “a 45-day study” to consider how it might accelerate work on the SLS, with a particular focus on the delayed core stage.

Why is America refocusing its efforts on the Moon now? It’s possible that some space-savvy strategist in the Trump White House noticed the space industry’s preparations to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s historic landing. It’s also possible that politicians are reacting to China’s developing space programme and Russia’s noises concerning deep-space exploration. Pence even channelled Sputnik in his speech, the launch of which embarrassed many Americans in 1957.

As with Kennedy’s call to arms of the 1960s, which put a man on the Moon before the decade was out, the one thing we can be sure of is that the recent White House announcement has politics written all over it. There is no such thing, in Washington, as ‘exploration for exploration’s sake’. Perhaps the only important question remaining is whether or not America still has the ‘Right Stuff’ to make it all happen. 

Already in orbit

ISS and exploration

It’s often pointed out that, since the final Apollo mission of 1972, the furthest anyone has travelled from Earth is about 400km, the height of the International Space Station’s orbit. But could the ISS, which was only dreamed of in the Apollo era, offer a role in future lunar exploration?

Space is all about logistics. In the 1960s, the transport solution for Apollo was the world’s largest rocket, the Saturn V, which carried crew capsule, service module and lunar lander to the Moon in a single shot. An alternative today is to employ smaller rockets to launch separate modules and use mature docking technologies to link separate spacecraft in orbit. This is the philosophy behind the Lunar Orbital Platform or Gateway, but if funds are not made available for its development it might be possible to use the ISS as a ‘staging post’ instead.

Unfortunately, in common with most other aspects of this lunar reboot, the availability of the ISS is uncertain. It has been approved for use until 2024, with a technical possibility of extending that to 2028, but Nasa seems to favour ending its commitment.

Speaking at the Global Space Congress in Abu Dhabi in March, Dmitry Loskutov, the director general of the Russian launch provider Glavcosmos, said that Russia was planning to launch additional modules to the station and would be willing and able to take over operations as required.

Although Nasa has not commented on this, former administrator Charles Bolden went so far as to dismiss the assertion that Russia would ever be able to take over ISS ops: in an interview with the writer, he said he expects to see the station burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere once Nasa funding expires.

Even if Bolden’s prediction comes true, it will not mark the end of the space station era, as China intends to start building its own large station in Earth orbit from 2020 and, if it succeeds in its publicised goal of attracting international cooperation, this may well become the de facto staging post for planetary exploration.


Timeline: Nasa’s moon exploration

Opinions vary from “aggressive” to “impossible”, but the White House has given Nasa instructions to accelerate its plans to return American astronauts to the surface of the Moon in accord with the following “aspirational” timeline:

2019: Orion final assembly, integration & testing; identify science instruments and technology demonstrations for commercial missions.

2020: First unmanned Orion mission (EM-1) using Space Launch System (SLS).

2022: First manned Orion mission (EM-2) on a flight test around the Moon.

2022: Launch of first part of orbital gateway (communications, power & propulsion modules).

2023: Third SLS launch (EM-3) carrying new Exploration Upper Stage; Science & Exploration Rover to land on the Moon.


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