Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Moon in 2021?


"Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

On July 20, 1969 humanity established a base on the Moon. Achieving that goal accelerated human science, from smaller microprocessors to evidence for a changing speed of light. Thousands were inspired to study math and science. Not by coincidence, human achievement flowered in the time of the Moon landings. Tranqulity Base was soon evacuated, but could be established again. A permanent base on the Moon is simply a matter of will.

Continuing the election story, a gauntlet has been laid. Tuesday in Florida, candidate Newt Gingrich vowed to start a base on the Moon by the end of his second term, the year 2021. Plans for the Moon have been seduced and abandoned for the past 40 years. Is a Moon settlement in that time frame possible? The Moon is achievable by more than one path.

The Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle is being developed by Lockheed Martin. Officially Orion's mission is crew return from low Earth orbit. A first unmanned flight has been scheduled for early 2014 atop a Delta IV booster. That flight will go to an altitude of 8000 km, exposing Orion to the radiation environment of deep Space. The reentry will be at speeds approaching that of lunar return. In today's difficult budget environment Lockheed engineers are designing Orion to go beyond.

The Space Launch System is being designed at Marshall Space Flight Center. SLS will initially be based on Shuttle-derived hardware--an 8.3 meter diameter first stage, RS-25 engines, and 5-segment solid rocket boosters. The big booster will have an initial payload to orbit of 70 metric tons. The first flight of SLS is scheduled for 2017, carrying an unmanned Orion toward the Moon.

Presently the year 2021 is envisioned with a crewed flight of Orion boosted atop SLS. The destination has not been chosen, but it could easily be an Apollo 8-type flight around the Moon. Other destinations will be possible, such as a Lagrange point or an asteroid.

If plans are started early enough, following flights could carry a Lunar Surface Module. Lunar landings would require 2 SLS launches, one for Orion and a second launch for the Lunar Module. If the lunar module is ready, the landing could occur as early as 2022. This seems early, but Apollo 11 followed Apollo 8 by only 7 months. This landing, the first step in a lunar base, would occur within a few months of Mr. Newt's goal.

Gingrich also spoke about prizes for private Space companies, akin to the Orteig Prize won by Charles Lindbergh. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster will be capable of placing 53 tons in low Earth orbit. Their Dragon capsule has an escape system that is also adaptable to planetary landings. With modifications Dragon could land a crew on the Moon. With the right incentive, perhaps SpaceX could reach the Moon faster and cheaper than NASA.

A lunar landing could also occur with international partners. The head of Russia's Roskosmos recently spoke about cooperating with Americans on the Moon. The Space Station was originally a West-only project, then nearly abandoned by the Clinton administration before being reimagined as a partnership with Russia. Perhaps international partners could contribute a Lunar Module to dock with Orion.

There are numerous paths to a lunar base. Orion and SLS could be combined with a new Lunar Module. The SpaceX Faldon Heavy and Dragon might be capable of a lunar landing. International partners could be involved. Any of these combinations could land the first elements of a lunar base by 2021. All that is required, all that has been required for 40 years, is the will. Perhaps another President will set a goal of lunar settlement.

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