The Incredible (Already) Shrinking Moon Program

A few years ago, I asked the question of “how many crew do you really need for a lunar program?”  The conclusion was that if you could reduce the crew requirements (at least initially), it might allow for a much more capable, affordable, and flexible architecture.  And you’d eventually be back up to 4 or even 6 or 8 person crews as more infrastructure gets set up and in place.  The idea is unorthodox, but worth serious contemplation.  However, Mark Whittington pooh-poohed the idea back then as “the incredible shrinking moon program”.  His theory was that since we had already said we’d do 4 people, that if we switched to two people, that the program would lose face and risk being canceled.  Even if the two-person architecture actually allowed us to do more for less money, and sooner.

Well, Mark’s at it again.  Commenting on some interesting questions raised by the Vision Restoration blog, where the optimal crew size question is raised again, Mark repeats his old argument:

A blog calling itself “Vision Restoriation” has some questions it would like to pose to the Augustine Commission. But the first question made me roll my eyes and wonder whether the blog ought to have been named “Vision Gutting.”


One hardly knows where to begin. Shrinking the crew to two roughly halves what one can do on the Moon for not, I would think, a lot of savings. And let’s just imagine the reaction of the Vision’s stakeholders, including Congress, the scientific community, and the new space entrepeneurs.

On the other hand, maybe we can shrink the crew to zero, make a movie about returning to the Moon, and save some real money. And people wonder why I can’t take these internet rocketeers seriously.

The first and most important flaw in this argument is the assumption that shrinking the crew per landing would not amount to a lot of savings.  It’s a nice opinion, but shows a complete and utter lack of understanding of the physics of lunar transportation.  The lander and capsule masses drive the IMLEO requirements for a lunar mission.  Halving the crew requirement would reduce the IMLEO requirement substantially.  Maybe not quite by half, but probably by at least 40%.  More importantly, doing it that way eliminates the need for big new boosters which are slated to use up something like 2/3 of NASA’s “exploration” budget over the next 10-15 years.

More importantly, the current ESAS-derived architecture is already presenting us with the “Incredible Shrinking Moon Program” that Mark bewailed back when I first raised this point 3 years ago.  Since that time, Orion and LSAM’s capabilities have been cut back substantially, Orion has gone from 6 crew to 4 to the ISS, and Ares V still doesn’t close performance-wise, and it’s already getting to the limits of its growth capacity.  If we continue down our current ill-thought-out path, there’s a very real chance that we’ll end up with a 2 or 3 person crew, just at the cost of a 4-person mission.

I’m not positive that a two-person mission is the right way to go, but handwaiving it away seems kind of lame.  With the kind of analysis that the Augustine Panel is doing, this is the kind of question that they should be asking.  Even if they come to the conclusion that 4 people is about right, that’s something that should be investigated, not just assumed.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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5 Responses to The Incredible (Already) Shrinking Moon Program

  1. Brock says:

    Can anyone sum up why people respond to Mark’s blog postings? Is he taken seriously among policy types, and therefore worthy of rebuttal? Because all I see are foolish opinions, poor reading comprehension skills (or deliberate misrepresentation meant to discredit the character of his targets), and a complete lack of logical argument. I don’t have the engineering chops to determine whether one program design is better than another, but I know sloppy thinking when I see it – and Mark displays it in spades.

  2. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Brock,
    No, he’s not really taken seriously as far as I can tell, but I was bored and trying to avoid doing real work for a while (and ticked off by his childish dismissal of an issue that I think deserves discussion). Plus, picking apart sloppy reasoning takes less effort than coming up with original thought…

    ok, point taken.

    ~Jon

  3. Joseph says:

    Jon,

    So one could conclude that by launching not not just one two person crew but multiple two manned crewed vehicles in rapid succession to assure mission success and provide redundancies in Earth return options. Thus, the possibilities in the expansion of crew on the surface of the moon multiply as does mission flexibility and launch vehicle options.

    With smaller crews one could envision elimination of one shot trips to the moon and actually launch multiple transport shuttles (Q: What might this look like?) to and from Earth orbit to L1, L2 or lunar orbit. Take reusable LSAM to the surface and back to orbit. You surmised in a previous article the possibilities of reusabilty. How might a reduction in crew number might make establishment of such an infrastructure possible?

    Joseph

  4. Andrew Swallow says:

    The Ares I is maxed out so putting a light-weight LEO only capsule on it, such as the Dreamchaser, may be the only way of saving it. The crew transferring to the lunar lander at a spacestation at LEO (or L1) means that the single Ares V can be replaced by 2 or 3 smaller rockets.

  5. MG says:

    /hand-waving on

    I have come to the belief that the best program for human lunar missions is designing the program around 2 person crews. Propellant depot + suitably sized commercially available launchers = economical and flexible program.

    Amongst the MANY conceptual problems with the US space program is a misperception of incremental steps. Incrementalism is most often portrayed in terms of destinations and expanding capabilities at the destination. And to get started, the powers that be propose brand new launch vehicles to get there. This is NOT incremental.

    OTOH, using existing infrastructure (DIRECT emphasizes this) and existing commercial launch capacity (which DIRECT doesn’t) *is* incremental… it adds minimal chunks to existing systems.

    I reckon I am preaching to the choir here. I have been a fan of DIRECT for quite some time, because it was better than NASA’s plans. The weak response to Mr. Greason’s question about propellant depot + Delta 4 / Atlas 5 / Falcon 9 convinced me that DIRECT’s principal “benefit” is a federally funded program that doesn’t impair federally funded human space exploration.

    So, thanks for welcoming me “to the club”. Where do I get my jacket? Is there a secret handshake? A decoder ring? A cool hat with horns?

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