Are We Really Going to the Moon Again?

Bush said yes, or maybe he said maybe. We assess the message, and the tech that will be required if the nation really gets behind an ambitious moon program.

Moon-base Landing

As a new crew of six nears the surface, the lander's reaction-control system keeps the craft steady while tail-mounted engines slow its descent. The spacious base now includes three additional radiation-shielded modules and a central inflated habitat. Several nearby fuel plants process frozen subsurface water into liquid hydrogen and oxygen: rocket fuel for the trip home. When astronauts leave base to work or explore, they travel in a pressurized rover. Energy for the base comes from an offsite nuclear reactor--most likely resting in a crater for radiation shielding.Bob Sauls/Frassanity & Associates

A 10-foot-long moon buggy is parked in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, roughly 239,000 miles from Earth. Nobody has driven this lunar rover in the past 31 years, but because the Moon has no liquid water and only the thinnest of atmospheres, the vehicle is probably as good as new--a set of fresh batteries would get it running again.

The rover isn't the only thing the last two men on the Moon--Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt--left behind when they departed on December 14, 1972. They also said good-bye to a lunar descent module, a flag, antennas, spacesuits and boots, cameras, tools, filters, food packages, urine bags, defecation collection devices and other items not needed for the return trip to Earth. The footprints and tire tracks Cernan and Schmitt left in the dust during their three-day visit are almost certainly still there, and expected to last at least another million years.

It's as though time has stood still on the Moon--and also in the human space exploration program. "In the past 30 years, no human being has set foot on another world or ventured farther up into space than 386 miles, roughly the distance from Washington, D.C., to Boston, Massachusetts," President George W. Bush said in announcing a major U.S. space initiative on January 14. Soon, though, he vowed, humans will head "into the cosmos"; his new space policy calls for sending astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. Exactly how they will get there remains to be seen, but many experts agree on one thing: Like those footprints on the Moon, the technology of human spaceflight has changed surprisingly little in 30 years. Improvements in materials, electronics and solar power have made spacecraft lighter, smarter and more energy efficient than in the Apollo days, but with few major advances in propulsion technology since the advent of chemical rocket engines powered by cryogenic liquid fuels, human spaceflight isn't significantly faster or cheaper than it was in the 1970s.

Space enthusiasts embraced the new policy ("Geez Louise hot f*****g damn!" was the first response to the Bush speech posted on one online forum). Until January 14, the only human spaceflight destination NASA had on its schedule was the International Space Station. "We haven't been exploring for years; we've been going in circles," says John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "Sending people beyond Earth orbit is a big deal."

The White House and NASA have yet to determine how they'll meet the objectives spelled out in the new policy: sending exploratory robotic missions to the Moon by 2008; completing the International Space Station and retiring the space shuttle by 2010; developing a Crew Exploration Vehicle and sending it on its first manned flight by 2014; and launching an "extended" human mission to the Moon by 2020. Only 12 people have ever set foot on the Moon, and none have stayed longer than three days. If astronauts are to spend weeks or months there, they'll have to bring a lot more supplies and
gear with them--everything from food and water to machines for exploring the Moon's surface and extracting useful resources. Also, the equipment for the mission will have to be more durable than that used by the Apollo moonwalkers, whose spacesuits are now falling apart in museums. And Bush proposed to set his ambitious new plan in motion with a mere $1 billion increase in NASA's budget over the next five years--about the cost of two space shuttle launches.

"The main problem is cost," says David Gump, president of the space start-up LunaCorp. "We've got technology out the wazoo, but we don't have technology we can afford to fly."

Many news reports greeted Bush's announcement as if it were a road map to a Moon base and then on to Mars. It fell well short of that. Although the January 14 speech was the boldest attempt yet to reignite the excitement many Americans felt when John F. Kennedy called for a U.S. Moon landing more than 40 years ago, hardly anyone believes that NASA can establish a manned base--much less a launch pad--on the Moon without a far more generous budget than Bush proposed. And glaringly, when the president delivered his State of the Union address--less than a week after he announced the new space policy--he made no mention of the Moon or Mars, suggesting to many NASA employees and supporters that he is unwilling to invest much political capital in a policy that, according to an Associated Press poll, only half the American public supports.

For those Americans, though, the new policy whetted a long-suppressed appetite for extending the frontiers of human settlement. With unmanned rovers sending back spectacular images of the Martian surface, the dream today is of a lunar outpost that would test the vehicles, power sources and life-support systems needed for a manned Mars mission. The question every space fan needs to ask is: What seeds did the president's January 14 speech plant, and can they ever grow into a Moon base that will help humans travel to Mars and beyond?

The idea of a lunar base has coalesced over several decades into a fairly clear vision: In the initial phase, robots would map the Moon's surface, search for water frozen in shadowed craters at the lunar poles, and identify an appropriate site for a habitable outpost. Astronauts would then come for short visits of up to two weeks; they would set up scientific instruments and experimental equipment for extracting resources from the lunar soil, and they would begin building habitation areas. Robots would assist the astronauts with this work. Later, the outpost would expand to include larger systems for recycling air and water, a processing plant for turning lunar ice into rocket fuel, and a nuclear power station that would generate electricity for the base--which would be able to support six or more astronauts for longer visits. Eventually, it's possible the base could become a permanent settlement, perhaps even capable of supporting tourists or colonists.

We're a long, long way from that dream right now, though. For one thing, NASA doesn't have a vehicle capable of taking astronauts and their gear to the Moon. The president has directed NASA to begin developing a spacecraft called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV. But it could just as easily be called the TBD, because Bush and NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe haven't offered any specifics about what the vehicle will look like or how it will work. "We've got to avoid getting fond of a design," O'Keefe said shortly after the president's speech.

There is no shortage of ideas about how to build a Crew Exploration Vehicle. "If you piled up every study (NASA) has done on getting to the Moon, it would get you to the Moon," says John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org. "This whole thing has been studied to death. The only thing they have not looked at is (sending) midgets."

But given the time constraints imposed by the president, and NASA's poor track record for developing a shuttle replacement (the agency spent billions on the failed National Aerospace Plane, the Delta Clipper and the X-33), it seems likely that NASA will settle on a relatively old-fashioned vehicle, one
that some engineers are calling Apollo Mark 2.

Most aerospace engineers agree on this much: The crew will probably ride in a simple gumdrop-shaped capsule similar to the Apollo Command Module, rather than a winged craft. And this capsule will probably be boosted to the Moon by a conventional chemical rocket with at least two stages, rather than a nuclear rocket or a single-stage vehicle. There's less agreement, though, on whether the CEV will require a new heavy-lift launch vehicle akin to the brawny Saturn 5 of the Apollo era.

Apollo actually consisted of several spacecraft, all stacked on top of the Saturn 5. When the 363-foot-long assembly lifted off from Cape Canaveral, it was powered by the rocket's first stage--five massive F-1 engines burning liquid kerosene and oxygen. Once its fuel supply was exhausted, the powerful first stage fell away from the rocket, and a second rocket stage--powered by five J-2 engines burning liquid hydrogen and oxygen--took over. Farther up in space, a third stage with a single J-2 engine picked up where the second stage left off. Four days after launch, with all three rocket stages jettisoned, the Apollo spacecraft entered lunar orbit.

A 21st-century Moon mission may not require such an enormous rocket. Instead, NASA may be able to launch a Crew Exploration Vehicle piece by piece on smaller rockets, assemble the pieces in low Earth orbit, and then depart for the Moon. The key to this strategy will be developing robots that can put the pieces together in space. Some robotic technology has already been developed for the assembly--and unmanned resupply--of the International Space Station. In the future, though, this work would have to be done without any help from the space shuttle and its crew.

Boeing engineers recently sketched a plan for assembling a CEV in three pieces: two rocket stages and a third section consisting of a crew module, a resource module that would provide propulsion for the return trip, and a launch-escape system. Each of the three elements would be launched on one of today's biggest expendable rockets, the Boeing Delta 4 or the Lockheed Martin Atlas 5. "We're trying to see if it's possible to come up with an approach that doesn't require the equivalent of a Saturn 5," says Mike Lounge, director of program development for Boeing NASA Systems.

Another popular concept for how to get pieces of the CEV into orbit is the Shuttle-C, a derivative of the current space shuttle. The main engines would be removed from the shuttle's winged orbiter and enclosed in a separate compartment that would be jettisoned and reused, and the rest of the orbiter would be replaced with a cargo container.

In a modified version of Shuttle-C that could lift even more weight, the orbiter's main engines would be replaced by powerful RS-68 engines borrowed from the Delta 4 rocket. Shuttle-C could carry two small CEV rocket stages in a single cargo container, so the entire CEV could theoretically be assembled in low Earth orbit with only two launches.

But many obstacles to this CEV scenario remain. For one thing, where would the orbital assembly occur? The International Space Station won't be much help because it orbits at an inclination that is a significant detour from the route to the Moon, which results in a fuel penalty.

Then there's the size problem. Some experts say that while existing medium-size rockets would probably be enough to enable an Apollo 8â€like orbiting of the Moon, without a new Saturn-class booster, NASA can never hope to establish a lunar outpost. Today's rockets can lift about 50,000 pounds into low Earth orbit; Saturn 5 lifted 280,000 pounds. "If you look at the launch capacity of the new Deltas and Atlases, you're practically pushing yourself back to the old Gemini days," says Ray Erikson, principal engineer at Flight Materials Inc.

The Apollo astronauts carried all their supplies and equipment with them, but for the "extended" lunar missions called for in the January presidential directive, more cargo will be required. "Even the mighty Saturn could only put two men and a dune buggy on the surface of the Moon for two or three days," says Erikson. "At that rate, it'll be a long, long time before we get to a thriving lunar metropolis." One proposed solution: Much like air versus surface mail, astronauts would fly express in powerful chemical rockets, while cargo would be shipped by a slower, cheaper method, such as a craft powered by huge solar panels.

Short of a major propulsion breakthrough, the only hope for building a lunar base is what's known as in situ resource utilization--in other words, living off the land. Studies of the Moon indicate there may be frozen water at the bottom of polar craters where the sun never shines. Water is not only valuable for quenching astronauts' thirst. It can also be separated into hydrogen and oxygen; liquefy the hydrogen and oxygen, and you have rocket fuel. The lunar soil also contains useful elements; the Space Studies Institute has conducted bench-chemistry experiments to show that it is theoretically possible to extract oxygen and aluminum from the soil.

It won't be easy. Engineers will have to build mining and processing equipment that won't break down in the extreme cold at the polar craters--equipment, of course, that is compact and lightweight enough to be transported to the Moon. The astronauts will also need a power source, almost certainly a nuclear one because solar panels aren't much good during the Moon's two-week-long nights. (Putting a nuclear reactor on the Moon shouldn't be as controversial as putting one on Earth because the Moon is already exposed to a lot of radiation.)

President Bush has proposed spending $12 billion on NASA's new exploration goals over the next five years, including $1 billion in new funding (the rest will be "reprogrammed" from the existing budget). After that, the NASA budget will increase only enough to keep up with inflation. By contrast, NASA spent about $150 billion in today's dollars on the decade-long Apollo program, according to space historian Howard McCurdy of American University.

"Kennedy did not have a dollar figure in front of him when he made the decision," says McCurdy. In the year after Kennedy's announcement, the NASA budget doubled, and it doubled again the following year. This time around, though, the White House intends to keep a tight rein on spending. So, although President Bush has announced specific dates for the development of the CEV and the return to the Moon, it would not be surprising if those deadlines slipped. At a press conference only a few hours after the president's speech, NASA administrator O'Keefe was already telling reporters that the new policy was not about "specific destinations" or "dates certain."

Making the financial outlook even worse, NASA is still saddled with the costly space station, whose completion will require at least 25 more space shuttle flights. Many who heard Bush's speech assumed that the funding for human space exploration would come from the phaseout of those two programs, which consume the lion's share of NASA's budget. But that's not the case, at least not for the next five years. Of the $12 billion that will be spent to achieve the new exploration goals, $11 billion will have to be cut from other parts of NASA's budget; the cuts will come mainly from science programs not directly related to human exploration (see "1 Step Forward, 2 Back?," page 67).

"(The station) is a hole in space into which NASA is pouring money, and it's not even on the table for debate," gripes Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who sent a letter to Bush and O'Keefe on January 19 recommending the immediate termination of the shuttle and station programs.

Other critics of the new space policy are concerned that the president plans to abandon the space shuttle too soon. With the shuttle scheduled for a 2010 retirement, and the CEV not expected to start flying until 2014, NASA faces a hiatus of at least four years in which it will have no vehicles traveling to space. "A big gap like that threatens the health and vitality of NASA," says Dan Shapiro, legislative director to senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

Some critics have even suggested that the Bush vision is a covert plan to euthanize NASA by phasing out its biggest programs, then shelving the Moon initiative. Even if that's not the case, it's clear that the bulk of the funding required for a Moon program will be the responsibility of future administrations. Some question whether the president, who has never attended a shuttle launch, is any more serious about space exploration than his father was; in 1989, President Bush Sr. called for a manned mission to Mars, only to drop the idea after learning it would cost $400 billion or more. "I think the American public is justifiably apprehensive about starting another major space initiative for fear that they will learn later that it will require far more sacrifice, or taxpayer dollars, than originally discussed or estimated," said senator John McCain at a January 28 hearing.

If the bad news is that a four-year battle over spending priorities, vehicle designs and mission planning has just begun, the good news is that, for the first time in a long while, space policy is a matter for national debate rather than idle speculation. Key fodder for discussion is exactly what Americans will do on the Moon once we return. The mission can't simply be a repeat performance of Apollo. "That's not a great vision," says Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society.

Unless activities on the Moon are focused on testing ideas and equipment for going to Mars (at a much safer distance from home), the Moon could end up a detour on the road to the Red Planet, as Carl Sagan once warned. "The idea of having a permanent base on the Moon could be a quagmire," says Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group co-founded by Sagan. "It could be the space station and worse, all over again." And while the United States is fixing its gaze on the Moon, the European Space Agency's much more detailed Aurora plan calls for a human landing on Mars in 2033.

Still, Friedman and other space enthusiasts are hopeful that the new NASA policy will finally set the agency back on a path toward the heavens. Until a few months ago, when the White House began to hint that President Bush was planning a new space agenda, it looked like the next big NASA program would be the Orbital Space Plane--a new spacecraft that would simply ferry astronauts back and forth to the space station, which is even less than the current shuttle does. "That was the space program version of Groundhog Day," says Zubrin. "Now the vision is, We're pushing out."