Posted by Michael Hiteshew on January 4th, 2006 (All posts by Michael Hiteshew)
Cargo Launch Vehicle with Lunar Lander
Before the end of the next decade, NASA astronauts will again explore the surface of the moon. And this time, we’re going to stay, building outposts and paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars and beyond.
So opens the article How We’ll Get Back to the Moon on NASA’s website in their Vision for Space Exploration. Brave words. While I’ve no doubt they’re capable of doing it, I do have serious doubts whether we’ll see this program fully funded.
Why, you may ask, are we even going back to the Moon? Didn’t we already do that in 1969? Is there anything really left there to explore? Here’s NASA’s chief historian, Steven J. Dick, answer to Why We Explore:
In October 1995 – ten years ago this month – two Swiss astronomers announced the discovery of the first planet around a Sun-like star outside of our solar system. A few weeks later the American team of Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler confirmed the discovery, and a few months after that they added two more “extrasolar planets.” These landmark events were only the beginning of a deluge of new planets. Some 155 are now known in addition to the 9 in our own solar system. Hardly a week goes by without the discovery of more. In a way, each discoverer is a new Columbus, unveiling a new planet rather than a new continent. Although these planets are gas giants, Earth-sized planets are not far behind. A thousand years from now our descendants may explore them in person.
At some point humans will learn to function efficiently in environments outside of Earth. Those that do will prosper, just as the British prospered from their Age of Exploration; just as Americans prospered from the explorations of Lewis and Clarke. Those that don’t will be left behind. Look at the societies that missed the Industrial Revolution. Many are still now trying to recover, stuck in a no-man’s land between the Middle Ages and modernity. The Information Revolution has already transformed the United States and much of the West (Tom Barnett’s “Core”) and again we see societies across the globe struggling to catch up. Space exploration is investment, it’s research and development on our future. If we succeed, the payoff will be staggering.
Lander and Return Vehicle in Lunar Orbit
What about the risks? Isn’t manned spaceflight dangerous? Wouldn’t we be better off sending robotic probes like the Mars Rover or Cassini? Mr. Dick discusses this very question in his essay Risk and Exploration. It was the subject of a meeting he chaired, whose participants were all explorers of one sort or another. Here’s what they said:
Numerous participants pointed to the risks of everyday life. Some of the explorers of earth, sea and space pointed out that the most dangerous thing they ever do is get in a car and go at a moderate rate of speed facing oncoming traffic separated only by a painted line. Why, some wondered, do we accept thousands of deaths on the roads annually, and then call for an end to the human space program when several dozen astronauts die over a period of 40 years?
Some participants worried that we are becoming too risk-averse: NASA as an institution and the United States as a society. Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell recalled the race to the Moon. While the Soviets hesitated, and less than two years after the fatal fire in which three astronauts were killed in their Apollo capsule while still on the ground, in 1968 the bold decision was made to send Apollo 8 around the Moon for the first time. “So here was a case where we analyzed the risk and we thought that the reward – the achievement and the ability to continue the Apollo program for landing – was well worth it.” Seven months later we landed on the Moon. Was that risk any less than the risks we take today with the Space Shuttle, or contemplate on the way to Mars?
Some participants remarked that if we wanted to avoid risk we could all just sit in Barcaloungers and watch TV. Is that the culture we want?
How about cost? Many of the critics of the space program ask, “Isn’t this a waste of money? Wouldn’t that money be better spent right here on Earth? What about the homeless?”
Last I looked, the entire NASA budget amounts to 1% of federal (non social security) spending. That’s one penny for each dollar spent. Social spending accounts for about 65%. So we’ve got a 65 to 1 ratio of social spending to research spending. Enough said.
Engineering Concept of the Two Launch Vehicles
From a technical viewpoint, the return to the moon concept being proposed looks remarkably like Apollo (Flash Player animation). The big differences seem to be: (1) instead of using a mega size Saturn V booster to lift the whole shebang at once, the crew and cargo will be launched separately and will dock up in space for the trip to the Moon. (2) the capsule will have three times the volume and will parachute onto dry land. They will also use modern space shuttle main engines, the shuttle hydrogen tank, and modern dry propellant boosters.
Lunar Base (Artist’s Concept)