Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of man first setting foot on the Moon. Back in the early 1970s it was all systems go for human exploration of space but somehow the momentum was lost, and other priorities took over. Just maintaining an orbital presence above the Earth has been full of challenges with Space Shuttle failures and delays to the International Space Station.
So when U.S. President George W. Bush announced a new Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004, many thought it a political stunt. Under the new plan, NASA would retire the Space Shuttle by 2010 and build a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) no later than 2014, with a grand plan to return to the Moon by 2020.
But there was something missing, something not quite right–an uneasy feeling that leaving a four-year gap in America’s human access to space capability was a retrograde step, even if international partners could help out.
With American pride at stake, newly installed NASA administrator Dr. Michael Griffin took the bull by the horns shortly after taking up his post in April 2005. The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) was set up to establish a “system of systems” for exploration, and the exploration program was restructured to develop the CEV faster and eliminate the gap.
The new plan, known as project “Constellation,” would start with a CEV (the Orion vehicle) heading to the International Space Station by 2011 and a Shuttle-derived heavy lift launch vehicle to give back what the U.S. had once had with its Saturn Vs–providing it a vehicle for manned flights (Ares I) and one for cargo flights (Ares V).
Central to the whole plan was the exploration systems architecture study (ESAS) with a team established at NASA headquarters to get the whole thing right, with Griffin describing the new plan as “Apollo on steroids.”
Another key element was to consult and engage the international space community. Doug Cooke, NASA ESMD deputy assistant administrator, told AIN that this involved input from 14 space agencies as well as commercial interests, ultimately filtering the 800 or so suggestions down to 85 specific objectives with six broad themes. The objectives include achieving a sustained presence on the Moon, seeking international collaboration, using the lunar surface to develop a science lab, using a lunar base to advance economic interests, developing technical innovation in space exploration and preparing for advanced space missions to Mars.
Things stepped up a gear when a Global Exploration Strategy was unveiled in 2006, outlining a plan for precursor robotic missions, and manned and cargo missions to place equipment at a permanent lunar site near one of the Moon’s poles, where solar energy is available almost all year.
The vision for the Moon outpost is that it will have five zones–an observation zone, a resource zone, a habitation zone, a power-production zone and a landing zone. Phased building of the base will, if things go as planned, see six-month long occupations beginning in 2024 in ISS-derived habitat modules.
But there is far more ground work to be done first–starting with testing the planned Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles beginning in March 2009, to designing the new Lunar Lander, called Altair, which will essentially be a larger version of the Apollo vehicle. “Ares V and the lander are the next steps for us. Then we will get contracts out for the lunar architecture,” said Cooke.
The first manned flight of Orion is planned for around 2015. Preparation for the flight includes the design of a crew escape system, which will be tested this month using a Boeing C-17.
The Orion CEV ultimately will be used in a similar way to Apollo’s crew service module. However, it is three times the size and will carry four astronauts at a time to the Moon, with all descending in the lander rather than one being left behind in orbit.
At present, all 10 of NASA’s main centers are gearing up for the return to the Moon and beyond. Work is under way to transition launch complex 39V at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to launch the Ares and Orion. Firing Room 1 at Launch Control is being renovated and work is beginning on transitioning the Vehicle Assembly Building, currently used by the Shuttle.
At NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Missouri, a new propulsion test stand is being prepared, and at Marshall Space Center in Alabama, modifications are being carried out to four buildings to support the Ares: the cryogenic structural test facility, dynamic test stand, thermal protection system development facility and the advanced engine test facility.
At NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Building 29 is being modified to house the CEV (Orion) avionics integration lab and at White Sands, New Mexico, work on the Orion launch-abort flight test pad is well under way.
Other missions that NASA describes as “an important part of preparing for our return to the Moon” include the launch later this year of the lunar reconnaissance orbiter (LRO) and lunar crater observation and sensing satellite (LCROSS) missions, “which will provide maps of the Moon and valuable data for selecting landing sites.”
Private Partners Sought
In keeping with its plans to concentrate on exploration, NASA wants to involve
the growing commercial space industry– selecting SpaceX and Orbital as future launcher partners, and is looking extensively for collaboration opportunities. “The U.S. will build the end-to-end transportation architecture, EVA suits and initial navigation capability,” said Cooke. “Beyond that, we welcome any commercial, international interest to partner on any part of the program. That leaves open things like rovers, habitat, labs and power system.”
“We are looking at a very interesting set of concepts, such as a small pressurized rover that would have suits attached so the crew can climb in and work in a shirt-sleeve environment,” said Cooke. “One objective is to prepare to go to Mars and this is served better by a permanent outpost rather than Apollo-like sortie missions, but scientists are interested in various specific locations, so we have concentrated on how you travel long distances from the outpost. We have looked at sending a small habitat ahead on wheels.”
The modular approach will continue with missions to Mars using much of the equipment currently being developed for future ISS and the Moon missions–notably the heavy-lift capability of the Ares launchers.
“We have done studies that show the appropriate crew size appears to be around six people. The Ares V is an excellent vehicle for this, with exactly the capability we need for Mars missions,” said Cooke.
Current activity concerning Mars includes the Phoenix lander, which arrived in May and has already been examining Martian soil samples, and the two robust little rovers Spirit and Opportunity, which are still sending back valuable data well after their 90-day warranties expired. The Mars science laboratory will be next, and will be the largest rover ever sent to the Red Planet, while the European Space Agency (Hall 5 Stand ISP2 and 16) plans to send its ExoMars rover to scout for signs of life, launching around 2013.
A key steppingstone beyond that will be to execute a Mars sample return (MSR) mission, not only to ensure that Martian dust is not toxic, but also to be able to design equipment to the right specifications.
“The Moon is one sixth the gravity of Earth, but Mars is 0.38 times, which makes getting off Mars more energetic. It will require a whole new lander, but we will learn a tremendous amount from the Moon missions first,” said Cooke.
While getting man back on the Moon has a clear deadline of 2020, Cooke admitted that “Mars is fuzzier at this point–probably in the 2030s, but it is also a function of budget, among other things.”