Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The moon landing +25 years: Can we go back? (updated)

The latest item that I dug out of my small stash of old technical magazines is the July 1994 Issue of IEEE Spectrum, which was dedicated to The Moon Landing: A 25th Anniversary Perspective. This issue reviews the Apollo 11 mission, how we got there, and what might be next for manned visits to the Moon or Mars.   This issue should provide fodder for several posts and, since the discussion rings so true today, I'll start with the question posed in the post title.

The answer to the question appeared in a brief interview with Wendell Mendell who had served as chief scientist, and “resident realist” in the New Initiatives Office at the Johnson Space Center. The short answer is 'yes we can, but...'.

Mr. Mendell said that a return to the moon would require two things: 1) A national will, and 2) the willingness to take risks. It was interesting that both of these points lead to money. Item #1 was required because the only way to get adequate funding was to have that national will. And, item #2 was required unless you were willing to commit even more money to cover "every conceivable contingency."  It seems like in 2012 we are still victims to these two items. We don't have a national will and hence the money.  Further, our political system (NASA, Congress, etc) is very risk averse which means we need even more of what we don't got.

Wendell made three other observations. First, he noted that returning to the moon will take proportionately more resources than it did the first time because “The bureaucratic process we have developed costs money.” He further observed that “A lot of people are process oriented not product oriented.” The final observation was about the fall-out from the Space Station program: “a significant missing element is trust between NASA and Congress...The whole relationship has been poisoned.” These three items seem to point to a third requirement to return to the moon: 3) Work outside of the bureaucratic system (of which both NASA and Congress are a part) as much as possible! Can you say 'new space'?

The year before this article was written, NASA's Space Exploration initiative had published their First Lunar Outpost study. This study featured two landers and would use a derivative of the Saturn V as a launcher. I wasn't aware that a Saturn V derivative was a realistic possibility in 1993.  Wendell's closing quote was “I want to have something in my pocket that is technically realizable and that can be done rapidly – and that requires no new launcher.” I'm not sure if that meant he was a proponent of resurrecting the Saturn V.  Today, I guess 'no new launcher' would imply man rating the Atlas V or Delta IV. Or wait a while and add the Falcon 9 to the list.

Update: The article that I summarized above was not clear in regards to NASA's lunar outpost studies.  The First Lunar Outpost study, which proposed a Saturn V derived launcher, quickly gave way to a study that would use Russian Energia rockets for cargo and Shuttle-derived launchers for personnel (Shuttle-C) (the LUNOX study).  The image that I attached above is actually from the LUNOX study. Additional references: