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.
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.