Over the past several weeks, I’ve put together several different ideas that I want to tie together tonight into what I hope is a coherent suggestion for a much better way for NASA to go about lunar exploration. I need to start out by stating the caveat that while the ideas and information I’m going to talk about here are borrowed from a lot of different sources, some of whom may agree with my approach, many of whom on the other hand probably don’t. So, just because I suggest using this idea or that, don’t assume that I’m implying that anybody endorses this idea other than myself.
The purpose of this alternative lunar exploration approach is to try and show how NASA could potentially execute a plan that:
- Is politically realistic
- Is fiscally sustainable without large increases in NASA’s budget
- Would begin manned lunar exploration missions by the first quarter of the next decade
- Would allow for doing both lunar exploration and lunar outpost construction
- Would use up less of NASA’s exploration budget while accomplishing more
- Would leave NASA in a better fiscal and technological position to begin manned Martian exploration sooner
- Would help leverage more effectively off of the private sector, while also catalyzing the development of truly private cislunar commerce
- Would lower the hurdle for development of key pieces of cislunar infrastructure.
I’m going to try and describe the overall concept in this blog post, but I’m not going to be going into it in anywhere near as much detail as some alternate proposals. I’m just one person, with finite resources, and I have almost no hope that anyone at NASA is going to listen to me. I want to put the concept out, and some of the guiding principles (with just enough technical detail to flesh things out), but leave nitty gritties like trying to predict schedules and exact budgets to others if they wish.
There are a couple of key guiding principles though that I’d like to discuss before going further:
- Avoid developing new single-use launch vehicles if at all possible–it’s cheaper to rescope and to change assumptions than to field a new high-reliability launch vehicle. If you have to develop a NASA-specific launch vehicle, minimize the number.
- When you can’t avoid developing new hardware, require the contractors to put skin in the game as often as is feasible. If the DoD, which is in charge of national defense felt it was ok to require the two EELV competitors to pony up most of the money for their boosters, then I think it’s safe to say that NASA, which is far less critical than defense, can afford to take the same chances.
- If you absolutely insist on reusing shuttle components and reemploying some of the same people (most of whom are manual labor jobs doing things that really are completely irrelevant to space exploration per se), try to keep the development costs to the minimum.
- Most of the price of an architecture are locked in in the conceptual phase, not in the detailed design phase. Getting something that makes sense from the start is better than insisting that smart NASA engineers can turn lead into gold or a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
- Take the risks you need to take. If there is a risk that has an extremely high payoff, but is moderately risky, at least put enough money into it to give it a chance. Don’t risk money for things that are low payoff. Budgetary risk is just as real as technical risk.
Light Scout Missions and DIRECT
As layed out in previous posts, the 2-3 man “Light Scout” architecture leverages existing stock boosters (Atlas V 401s and Delta IVHs initially), existing stages with light modifications (a stock Centaur with an added-on “lunar mission kit”), a simplified “lunar version” of the planned Bigelow Sundancer module, a light 2-3 person capsule, a light pressurized landing cabin, and a light, reusable single-stage lunar lander.
While I made the case for the 2-3 man architecture previously, what I’m going to suggest in this article is a bit different from what most people think I’m going to suggest. I’m not suggesting that NASA completely scrap ESAS, 4-man architectures, Shuttle Derived Vehicles, and everything else and implement a 2-man architecture instead. My suggestion to NASA is to adopt a Light Scout architecture, not as a replacement of the 4-man ESAS architecture, but as an enhancement to the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program, and a precursor to the larger 4-man missions.
Real Lunar Exploration
As it is, the current lunar exploration plan doesn’t really result in exploring most of the moon. As NASA announced today, their current plan would focus all of their manned landings not on exploration per se, but on building up a base at Shackleton crater. While that isn’t a bad goal in itself, it really leaves a bit to be desired. A lot of this is driven by how expensive the current architecture is, and how infrequently they can afford to fly it (especially if they want to actually fly anything on the missions–just the cost of the transportation hardware alone soaks up most of the budget currently). Basically, every single NASA manned landing on the moon before 2025 will be within an area smaller than the Mojave Spaceport. Before that, most of the unmanned lunar exploration will also be focused on that particular chunk of lunar real estate. If it cost 10% of what it did, it might actually be impressive, but for how much NASA wants and how long it wants to take, it ends up being a rather pathetic statement about how little things have progressed in manned spaceflight over the past 40 years.
My suggestion boils down to the following steps:
- “Upgrade” Ares I to the DIRECT launcher. DIRECT satisfies the political needs to keep some of the Shuttle people still employed, while tying up less resources for what it actually can deliver, requiring less new hardware development, less new infrastructure, and having more flight heritage than Ares I/Ares V. Also since development and fixed costs tend to dominate low-flight-rate vehicles, this is the best way to free up the most cash without ditching the Shuttle hardware completely.
- Shelve the 5-segment SRB development plans. They aren’t needed for DIRECT, end up being completely different boosters than the 4-segment ones, and soak up a huge amount of money early on. Since a lot of that money is being taken away from the kind of science programs that Democrats like, this is a great way to get ESAS seriously neutered. Getting rid of this liability sooner rather than later is important.
- Slow down the J-2X development plans. While they may be useful for the EDS, EDS won’t be needed till shortly before 4-man lunar missions commence, and with DIRECT, the J-2X isn’t on the critical path for early CEV flights.
- Use some of the money saved to pay for the development of something similar to the Light Scout lander designs that I’ve been discussing.
- Determine if using the Soyuz Orbital Module and Reentry Capsule will work for the manned portion of the 2-3 person Light Scout architecture. If not, develop a 2-3 person manned capsule based off of the Apollo CM moldline, but lighter (as was suggested in the Early Lunar Return concept).
- Finish development of and flight qualify the “lunar mission kit” for the Lunar Transfer Centaur. Possibly qualify the solar power system, restartability and long duration propellant storage as a “free-rider” on a launch of some GSO satellite. Basically, after the satellite has been delivered, test out the various mission kit technologies to make sure they work properly–but make sure that they aren’t activated until after the paying customer’s hardware is where it belongs.
- Offer to purchase a lunar version of Sundancer at a firm fixed price per module. Say something like $100-150M each for the first five years with a renegotiation after that point.
- Put some money into both Centennial Challenges and study contracts for bringing settled cryogenic propellant transfer all the way into practice. This isn’t needed immediately for the Light Scout program, but it greatly reduces costs (by over half) once it is available, and can help drive up demand for commercial spaceflight by large margins. It also can greatly enhance the larger 4-man missions when they come on line, and is a real enabler for cost-effective Mars exploration. As I keep saying, it’s one of the key technologies any truly “spacefaring” civilization has to master before it can deserve to be called such.
- Split whatever money freed up by the switch from Ares I to DIRECT that isn’t being used on the Light Scout program between enhancing COTS (to relax schedule pressures on DIRECT and free it up for just doing lunar missions and big ISS module missions instead of wasting expensive launchers on ISS logistics) and giving some money back to Aeronautics and Science. That will help alleviate some of the common Democratic complaints that Bush’s space initiative is “gutting” science and aeronautics.
Other than the lander portion of the Light Scout architecture, most of what few hardware modifications are necessary shouldn’t take much time. Lockheed has already been studying what it would take to lengthen the duration of their Centaur stages, and has a very good idea of how to proceed from here. If something like using Soyuz parts for the manned return capsule part pans out, it might be possible to start doing translunar flights as early as mid-to-late 2009, and using WSB trajectories to increase the capability or number, or decrease the cost of RLEP satellites.
Once the light lander is done, initial flight tests can involve dropping off unmanned rovers and such on the lunar surface, working their way up to manned flights. If done right, the first manned lunar return could be in the 2010-2012 timeframe. Then, as DIRECT is slowly brought on line and the larger 4-man architecture components flight tested and debugged, you can get several extra years of lunar exploration for about the same price (or less) than the current architecture.
Light Scout Campaigns
A Light Scout “Outpost” campaign might follow a sequence similar to this:
- Land an unmanned cargo lander that includes a mix of several small robotic lunar exploration rovers, landing nav aids, supplies and life support consumables, solar power equipment, scientific equipment, and light construction equipment.
- Next, if the initial robotic exploration looks promising enough, land a Bigelow Sundancer Module at the site while the robotic rovers do some basic exploration, and possibly some preliminary site preparation (depending on how easily you can get the hardware to work via telepresence).
- Next land one 2-3 man teams. They help bury the Sundancer module, and setup a light exploration base, and then spend the next several weeks exploring the environment using the unmanned rovers as robotic helpers. The robots help do some of the high-level exploration, with the manned explorers following up in detail, and maintaining the robotic equipment to make it last longer.
- If the site is of sufficient interest, continue rotating crews in on a semi-regular basis.
If briefer, less thorough sorties are desired in some locations, it might be possible to just land the robotic cargo lander, or just land a 2-3 person sortie. Even with the spartan setup described in my previous posts, short 2-4 day stays should be possible off of a single mission, which is likely to be comparable to an Apollo mission (which weren’t exactly wastes of time even at multiple times the cost per mission).
By mixing and matching unmanned, manned, light outpost, and continual habitation sorties, a lot more ground can be covered a lot less expensively. Initially, on a budget of less than say $1.5B/year, you could afford to do one of the Light Scout/RLEP campaigns per year. However, if settled cryogenic propellant transfer comes on line, you could quickly drive that to 2-3 full campaigns per year, or 1-2 full Light Scout Outpost campaigns, a couple of robotic-only landings, and several Light Scout Sortie missions.
These missions can help explore some of the interesting locations on the moon that aren’t going to be visited at all under the current NASA plan, such as potential Fe-Ni meteorite impact sites, localized high magnetic field sites like Reiner Gamma (which might have something to do with the former), sites near lava-tubes and rille valleys, the lunar North polar regions, areas associated with Lunar Transient Phenomenon, etc. If Dennis Wingo’s hypotheses that some largely-intact Fe-Ni meteorite impactors may exist on the moon is right, that could have substantial economic implications, and getting some boots on the ground to do initial prospecting could be very useful.
Paving the Way
These missions can also pave the way for the larger, more capable 4-person missions to setup a base in Shackleton Crater. The unmanned cargo landers can deliver a much more substantial contingency of robotic exploratory rovers. Manned landers can scout out the terrain, and setup landing nav aids for future landings, maybe even clear some landing zones. Earlier light outpost missions could have started testing out some of the ISRU construction processes and propellant generation processes that could be taken to “pilot plant” scale at this point in the exploration schedule. The reusable single-stage light lander design, and operational data and experience from it could help make the LSAM more capable, reliable, and less expensive. If on-orbit cryo transfer is matured, the costs of getting supplies and people, and large components down to the lunar surface will be substantially lower. Not to mention as the costs drop, lunar tourism and other lunar enterprises might become feasible. Maybe even before the larger 4-man architecture or Shackleton Base enters operations.
Mars and Beyond, Sooner and Better
This could allow for a more substantial base, sooner, with more commercial and international cooperation. It could also allow for NASA to start shifting it’s focus sooner to Martian and NEO exploration. With on-orbit propellant transfer, and a now much more robust and high-flight rate commercial market for propellant delivery, Martian exploration missions can be done more frequently, and at much lower costs.
Anyhow, that’s the basic concept I’ve got. I think it’s possible to throw a bone to the Shuttle Derived crowd, placate the Science and Aeronautics crowd, get at least some light scout missions back to the moon sooner, and still preserve the heavier lift capabilities that NASA and ESAS so desire, all without busting the bank. I don’t have detailed cost, reliability and schedule estimates all taken out to 3 significant figures. I don’t have tons of glitzy slides and CAD models to back things up, but I think I’ve presented enough information here for anyone who really is interested to look the idea over, think it outs for themselves, and at least chew on it for a while.
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