Let's Stop Pretending We Can Establish Human Outposts Beyond Earth Orbit

By Richard Mains, Posted 02/11/10


Van Allen Belts,  Source: AstronomyCafe.net

Van Allen Belts, Source: AstronomyCafe.net

We regularly see articles lamenting the fact that we’re stuck in Earth orbit and how with the Space Shuttle retirement approaching, we’ll soon have to pay others to even get there. These frustrated writers seem to suggest that if we were just able to advocate more effectively for the funding, we could travel to the Moon on the first available big rocket and establish human outposts there. Even John Noble Wilford, the Pulitzer-Prize winning space and science writer, notes in the New York Times that “humans remain stalled in low orbit”. With Obama’s proposed deferral of large rocket development and the human return to the Moon, Wilford asks, “Can Measured Beat Bold?". harkening back to Apollo when we took the boldest step of all.  Wilford’s reference to “Measured” acknowledges Obama’s current approach to invest in advanced technology, robotics, and new infrastructure that will allow us to effectively use the International Space Station (ISS) that’s nearing completion, and conduct lunar missions without humans onboard.

Obama anticipates that new and cheaper solutions to accessing space will emerge from partnering with the private sector, and is urging NASA to focus more on our many national challenges such as climate change monitoring, disaster mitigation, and non-carbon energy advances along with exploring space. Good evidence indicates that it is what the broad public has been seeking for some time now, and considering current economic conditions and NASA’s urgent need for public support, it should be embraced. Wilford, in his last paragraph, wisely and elegantly notes that, “Even if robotic surrogates can go farther and make discoveries at less cost, the Obama space plan, if nothing else, reminds us that banked fires still burn and may yet light the way to distant shores. Humans will probably not rest until they again ride their technologies themselves.” 

Now, while giving Obama a break, it’s really important for us to remember that we’re “stuck” in low Earth orbit for more reasons than lack of rockets or funds – a fact that always gets lost in the political battles that haunt human space exploration. The Moon lies well outside the Van Allen Belts surrounding Earth that protect us and space platforms in low Earth orbit like the ISS, against the worst kinds of cosmic radiation. We always have crew rescue vehicles attached to the ISS for a quick return to Earth if an on-orbit disaster like a meteorite impact occurs. Also, we transport food and water, supplies, equipment repair kits, replacement crews and much more, regularly to the ISS from Earth. We remain in Earth orbit in part because we are not yet prepared to establish human outposts on the far distant Moon and we have much work left to do there .

Have we forgotten that one of the main rationales for building the ISS was as a stepping stone to exploration beyond Earth orbit? We’re just finishing its construction now and have major research to do not just on human adaptation to living “off Earth” but also on developing reliable life support and recycling systems needed to eventually support and sustain human habitation for long durations, far from Earth. Research of this kind has not been consistently funded and needs to be pursued over the next decade of ISS operations, preferably in collaboration with our international partners.

We also need to add artificial gravity systems to the ISS that will allow us to simulate for research animals and humans, the effects of Earth gravity (1 g), and gravity on the Moon (1/6th g) and Mars (1/3rd g). A large centrifuge facility was one of the key research modules under development for the ISS, but it was very unfortunately cancelled due to funding shortfalls. Interest is growing rapidly among the international partners in bringing this research capability to the ISS for broad use. When we are actually prepared to develop and transport human outposts on the Moon we will have accumulated much new knowledge and technologies that will also allow us to travel to other locations besides the Moon. Bigelow Aerospace, an entrepreneurial space habitat company has already proposed using its expandable modules as human transport systems to sites near the Moon but also as landers and preliminary bases for future human outposts.  Such commercial investments can pay off not only for flexible future human exploration, but right here on Earth too by producing profits and hence new careers.



Lunar Base Feasible

From: DougSpace, 07/26/12

A very late post but...here we are now in 2012. The Falcon Heavy is due to launch as soon as 19 months from now at a fraction of the cost of the launchers mentioned above. We also have a better understanding of lunar ice composition thanks to the LCROSS mission. So we now know that the lunar poles contain 5.6% water and 5.7% carbon monoxide in addition to ammonia and methane. We also know that COTS. CRS, and CCDev is going well and would offer a good model for a series of "Lunar COTS" programs. The author refers to the Van Allen belts but Marcel easily dismisses this concern by mentioning the use of regolith shielding. Extended stays on the Moon will reduce trips and hence costs. The Russians have demonstrated on the ISS that a vigorous exercise program overcomes the muscle wasting. As for quick return, just keep an extra fueled lander handy. We should be fully able to establish a permanent base on the Moon if we so choose and without breaking the bank.

Fuel cost is the issue

From: Ken Anthony, 11/10/10

We need to avoid being short sighted. Vehicles need to all have two important qualities: 1) Specifically designed for their flight environment. 2) Fully reusable gas and go (easier the lower the g environment.) The fixed cost of a reusable vehicle can be amortized over decades of service. The real cost of human spaceflight is fuel. You need about ten times the mass of a ship in fuel to reach mars for example. Then you need to refuel the ship if you want to return to earth. Instead of endless debate, somebody needs to put that first reusable private spaceship in earth orbit. That creates a customer for fuel and becomes a service provider for transportation for any mission within the delta V of the ship. Everything else follows.

Look at the Logistical Requirements of Supporting A Lunar Base

From: Dave Klingler, 02/15/10

I've dedicated a fairly large chunk of my life (17 years) toward organizing conferences dealing with the topic of lunar colonization, and I wish that those of us who wish to see a permanent human presence on the Moon would think the problem through. Look first of all at the problem of an emergency crew return vehicle, and the fact that we're arguably still solving that problem for Station. Second, supporting a lunar outpost would require short-term emergency supply capability in addition to a larger regular transport capability than either ARES or Jupiter would be capable of supplying at a price that Congress or the American people would be willing to pay. Von Braun had planned to use 75,000-pound-thrust NERVA rocket to double the mass to LEO of a heavy lifter and enable the addition of space propellant depots and nuclear tugs. The addition of a nuclear tug and additional human factors development would make lunar construction and regular Earth-Moon transport missions (and big solar system exploration missions) possible, but Congress wound down NERVA in the late sixties as the most politically-expedient means of making sure we wouldn't be paying to support a big Mars outpost in the late seventies. The physics of space travel hasn't changed in the last forty years, and we'll still need high ISPs and nuclear power to make any significant movement past LEO.

Lunar Outposts Are Still a Vision

From: Richard Mains, 02/13/10

I hope I"ve made it clear that establishing a human outpost on the Moon is a goal worth pursuing, because I think it is. My point (and Logan's) is that we've only inhabited the Moon for a few days at a time using resources that were carried on the Apollo Lunar Lander. Granted, the ISS is probably way too big, but we've been building it with an international team for a decade, using many transport vehicles carrying supplies and return waste, and it's what we have. Compared to building a similar functionality on the Moon, doing so for the ISS is like carrying supplies into your backyard. A Lunar outpost would require not only living quarters, a vast quantity of resources and equipment would need to be transported, much of which would be subsystems similar to those on the ISS. The projected cost of an Ares I rocket traveling to the ISS was about $1B and the cost of an Ares V rocket to the Moon (with landing and takeoff systems) would be much more. In order to consider actually living on the Moon for 30 days as has been proposed, we would have to send multiple large rockets carrying large quantities of supplies. In addition, we would have to develop robotic systems to assist the crew in assembling equipment, monitoring and maintaining it, using tools to conduct research and tests on how to utilize local resources as part of future life support systems. We don't have the funds to recreate a mini-ISS on the lunar surface, but Bigelow Aerospace has some ideas on how it might be done using expandable habitats built in orbit first as transportable space stations. We will need to be highly innovative in developing new, lower-cost, more flexible and modular methods that allow us to reuse hardware from transport vehicles as habitation and work systems. It's a grand vision we're anticipating here, and we have much work to do before we're ready to consider taking such a leap. The ISS can be used as a stepping stone to such a future and I hope we use it effectively.

The ISS???

From: Orion, 02/13/10

I come to this discussion believing the ISS is the most bloody useless monument to human stupidity ever built. Costing hundreds of billions of dollars and a half dozen or so human lives so far, its only reason for existence is to slip the Russians money under the table so they don't go selling their nuclear arsenal off for hard cash. The Moon is straightforward and simple to reach. Roll out some solar panels and fire up a solar crucible once you get there to extract oxygen, hydrogen, and all manner of light metals from the regolith and the place becomes self-sustaining with a population in the thousands in a generation. Use these resources to build interplanetary exploration ships and bring back the wealth of the solar system to Earth. It's only that first step out of Earth's gravity well that's the hard one.

Okay, I'll bite...

From: Presley Cannady, 02/13/10

So tell us. What is your great plan for capturing a near Earth asteroid? Bottom line, whether feasible or not, Constellation followed a clearly articulated objective of opening space within our lifetimes for settlement and exploitation. If your point (and Logan's) is that the Moon is an unnecessarily unideal target for starting this venture, what do you propose the mission should be? As far as I can tell, NASA's new mission will be to punt human expansion into space to the market while still spending billions snapping pretty pictures and collecting cosmic debris; none of which gets us measurably closer to even cheap satellite deployment and maintenance, let alone Americans living, working and profiting in space.

To the Moon

From: Marcel F. Williams, 02/13/10

First of all, there's no logical reason for a titanic microgravity space station that can only accommodate 6 people. Smaller and cheaper space stations placed into orbit with the single launch of a heavy lift vehicle make more sense and cents. The solution to galactic radiation and solar events on the Moon is to place 5 meters of lunar dirt on top of your habitat. That's it! And if you want air then melt the rocks or the dirt since the regolith is composed of 40% oxygen. Want water? Well it might be possible to extract significant quantities from the regolith or possibly mine it from the poles. But if not, then land 10 tonnes of hydrogen on the lunar surface via an Altar. That will produce about 90 tonnes of water when mixed with lunar oxygen. An ISS astronaut uses about 10 tonnes of water per year. So 9 astronauts on the Moon could be supplied with water for a year with just one hydrogen shipment. However, if this water is recycled with an 80% efficiency then 45 astronauts could be sustained for a year with just one shipment of hydrogen or 10 astronauts for over 4 years with just one shipment.

Let's Start Doing

From: Richard Mains, 02/12/10

Doug. I share a lot of your views and I like your vision. However, the reality is that: 1) we and our international partners have spent about $100B designing, building, operating and now completing the ISS and congress wants it used for several years to return as much as possible of the projected value; 2) we don't have a NASA budget that will allow us to use the ISS and build a new space transport infrastructure that will get us to LEO and the Moon; and 3) so NASA doesn't have "seed funds" sufficient to create a public-private partnership for establishing a moon base that has the near-term potential to sustain its inhabitants let alone make any money. It's my view that NASA's seed funding of commercial space vehicles to transport cargo and then (after meeting a big safety challeng) transport crew to the ISS, is on the critical path to your vision. Also, the Bigelow option to attach an expandable habitat to the ISS and/or develop and operate his Sundancer research station, and/or send one of his "clusters" to an optimal point near the Moon will be major game-changer. And Bigelow will use commercial launchers for all his efforts which will expand that market. NASA's new Commercial ReUsable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) Program (http://suborbitalex.arc.nasa.gov/node/61) is also a step in right direction. NASA will work with a wide range of NASA-sponsored researchers to buy "seats" for people and payloads on the emerging commercial suborbital space planes to access near-space for science discovery, technology maturation and hands-on education objectives. NASAS will be a "pathfinder" in this process for safety processes and certification of people and payloads. I like your vision, but we have a lot of good work to do to build the knowledge base, new technologies and commercial infrastructure. Let's collaborate to make it so.

Stop Pretending

From: Doug Gard, 02/12/10

I disagree Mr. Mains. The moon provides the focus, an inspirational, worthy foundation, which stimulus and fosters the development of a commercial free market space industry. There are building materials on the moon, chemicals, water, low-G, the building blocks. The feds pony up the seed funds to establish a moon base with commercial partners. Then the commercial industry is pulled outward to provide re-supply, surface exploration, etc... The market is what drives the technology and sets the stage for an explosion of space development and innovation. The market provides a naturally defined path (not a FLEX path) of development outward. The moon is inspirational, we can see it in the night sky, and it is a visible, tangible and focused goal. FLEX is vague, random and undefined. FLEX support market is very limited and dependent on the ISS. The public perceives the ISS as a wasteful relic boondoggle and jobs program. Bigelow structures can support a covering of lunar regolith. VSE utilizes the moon as a goal to kick start a wide array of markets. Once basic markets are established the moon is no longer needed as a goal the markets then provide the direction.

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