Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Advertise on Grand Plans for Moon and Mars, Budget Permitting

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NASA’s program to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 is often called “Apollo on steroids.”
To detractors, this is a description of disparagement — treading the same path as 40 years ago, only with bigger, costlier rockets.

But the officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration say the new missions will be much grander — astronauts living on the Moon for months at a time, driving hundreds of miles across the lunar surface and, for the first time, building an outpost on ground that is not Earth.

“It’s not just flags and footsteps,” said John Olson, director of the office within NASA’s exploration systems mission directorate that integrates the disparate parts of a lunar program. “It’s substantially important work.”

The technologies and skills, the NASA officials say, are essential before pushing on to Mars, the next major destination. Scientists see several exciting research possibilities on the Moon, like building a radio telescope on the far side, shielded from the noise from Earth, and looking for layers of frost in shadowed craters near the poles, which may preserve hints of the solar system’s past.from

But with trillion-dollar federal budget deficits and a blue ribbon panel now re-evaluating the United States’ human space flight program, there is some question whether the lunar designs that NASA has drawn up over the past five years will be built. The agency could be told to focus on robotic missions, to undertake cheaper alternatives for getting to the Moon or to shift its target to something else, like an asteroid.

If NASA does not go to the Moon, it is not clear anyone else would go, either. Some Chinese and Russian officials have talked about establishing a Moon base sometime around 2025, but neither China nor Russia has made any official pronouncements, and their current rockets are too small for the task.

The nascent private space industry, which has yet to send anyone into orbit, does not seem likely to head to the Moon, either, with no obvious profit windfall to offset the billions of dollars in cost. “The idea that a private investor can put together the funds to develop rockets capable of a lunar mission is extremely speculative, verging on fantasy,” said John Logsdon, chairman of space history at the National Air and Space Museum.

What is perhaps more likely is that the Moon program will, like the International Space Station, become a combined effort of multiple nations.

At the first public meeting of the panel reviewing NASA’s human spaceflight program, Gen. Anatoly N. Perminov, the head of Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, said by telephone, “Roscosmos supports the necessity of involving technical and scientific potential of other countries for such large-scale projects,” including sending astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

NASA has named its next-generation space transportation system the Constellation program. The first two pieces of Constellation — the Ares I rocket with an Orion crew capsule — are to take astronauts to the International Space Station beginning in 2015.

Two additional pieces are needed for the trip to the Moon: the Ares V, a behemoth “heavy lifter” rocket, and the Altair lunar lander, for getting the astronauts down to the Moon’s surface.

At first glance, the Ares V looks more or less like the Saturn V from the Apollo era, and the Altair looks like a fashion update — with a rounder, more modern aesthetic — of the lander that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Sea of Tranquillity.

“Physics and engineering drive a lot of the designs,” Dr. Olson said, explaining the similarities.

Then there are the differences. The Ares V is to be just a tad taller than the Saturn V — 381 feet versus 363 feet. But the Ares V will be able to send about 140,000 pounds on a journey to the Moon, or 40 percent more than the Saturn V.

The Ares V, unlike the Saturn V, will not carry astronauts as it lifts off. Following the recommendations of panel that investigated the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the Constellation program puts crew and cargo on separate rockets to improve astronaut safety. While most of the spacecraft hardware — the Altair lander and the Earth departure stage — goes up on the Ares V, a crew of four astronauts will launch in an Orion capsule on top of an Ares I.

In Earth orbit, the Orion capsule will dock with the components sent up by the Ares V, and the combined spacecraft will then head to the Moon.

On Apollo 11, Michael Collins had to sit by himself circling the Moon in the command module while his two companions went to the surface in the lander. For the next Moon missions, all four astronauts are to head to the surface, while the Orion capsule, empty, takes care of itself.

That means the Altair lander must be much larger than the Apollo-era lander, both to carry the additional astronauts and supplies and to be able to reach more parts of the Moon. The advances in technology could also enable cargo versions of the Altair — without astronauts — to bring modular components of an outpost as well as R.V.-size rovers.

The rover concept calls for a fully pressurized cabin in which the astronauts can work in short sleeves. For sorties lasting a week or so, the astronauts would be essentially living out of their car. “Call it a ‘Luna-bago’ of sorts!” Dr. Olson said.The spacesuits would actually be stored outside the rover, and the astronauts would be able to jump into them via openings in the back, enabling them to go from inside to outside in 10 minutes.

“It’s a total game changer,” Dr. Olson said.

But the federal budget proposed by President Obama would not pay for that, certainly not before 2020. After increases in the current year and for fiscal year 2010, Mr. Obama’s proposed spending on human exploration in years 2011 through 2013 was several billion dollars less than what President Bush proposed last year. That essentially cut the money to turn the Altair and the Ares V from paper concepts to detailed designs and real spacecraft.

“No bucks, no Buck Rogers,” Dr. Olson said.

But the hope of many inside and outside NASA is that the Obama administration’s budget levels are just placeholders pending the recommendations of the panel reviewing the agency’s human space program. Its report is expected by the end of August.

The panel is looking at alternatives to Ares I and Ares V, like adapting existing rockets like the Delta IV for NASA’s astronaut needs.


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