Image: Orion and moon lander
Lockheed Martin
An artist's conception shows the Orion crew exploration vehicle linked up with a lunar lander.
By Senior space writer
updated 11/15/2006 4:52:56 PM ET 2006-11-15T21:52:56

NASA is set to roll out next month a national strategy for lunar exploration, one that outlines both robotic exploration needs and the rationale for sending humans back to the moon.

The space agency plan is a key component in the response to U.S. President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration – a call to action that he sketched out in early 2004.

That far-reaching, big-picture White House agenda included as a goal the return of humans to the moon’s surface by 2020 - as the launching point for missions beyond. Also, starting no later than 2008, a series of robotic missions would be dispatched to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration.

With the moon viewed as home for abundant resources, President Bush also explained that lunar soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air.

“We can use our time on the moon to develop and test new approaches and technologies and systems that will allow us to function in other, more challenging environments. The moon is a logical step toward further progress and achievement,” Bush stated nearly three years ago during a speech at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Not set in stone
Prospective use of the moon was high on the agenda at the eighth Space Resources Roundtable, held here Oct. 31-Nov. 2 at the Colorado School of Mines and in collaboration with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston.

The need to use space resources effectively “has penetrated deeply in planning for NASA’s Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program,” said David Atkinson, deputy program executive for the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program at NASA Headquarters. “It could become a keystone of our future human exploration,” with use of lunar resources helping to enable the settlement of the moon, he said.

Atkinson said that while NASA’s lunar plans are not set in stone, a display of on-the-spot use of the moon’s resources — labeled as In-Situ Resource Utilization or ISRU — is forecast in about the 2013 time frame.

Potentially, follow-on experiments and equipment could lead to an ISRU production output at some serious level. This ability would supplement resources lugged from Earth and enable future crews to start “living off the land.”

Short sorties
On Dec. 4-6, NASA is holding its second Space Exploration Conference in Houston — a status report meeting on implementing the Vision for Space Exploration.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 The NASA lunar architecture unveiling is expected to answer the “why” of returning to the moon. Throughout this year, NASA has solicited input regarding the benefits of lunar exploration from academia, the private sector and space agencies from around the world.

It will be a notional strategy for both robotic and human exploration, with the intent to kick-start more discussion in and out of NASA circles, explained Gerald Sanders, ISRU project manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. He coordinates all space resource work throughout the space agency.

Up for dialogue, Sanders told Space.com, are human-piloted “sortie” flights to the moon — missions longer than the lengthiest Apollo stay of three days, but not going into a lunar night.

Such sorties to the moon’s equator would be less than 14 days, but more than three days — likely around three- to six-day missions, Sanders said. There is also desire to go to the lunar poles, to permanently or semipermanently lit locales. “If you go to the poles, day is different there,” he noted.

Moon outpost
Sorties would reach “very unique places” that Apollo expeditions did not visit, Sanders said. More people would be on the lunar surface than Apollo, he said, and for longer stay times. That means crews can investigate diverse locations — perhaps even the moon’s “far side,” which is never visible from the Earth.

Sorties are also seen as a way to regain NASA’s lunar legs, so to speak. These excursions would not only groom astronaut skills and appraise equipment, but also sharpen ground controller talent that would support the short sojourns.

In contrast with sorties, an outpost on the moon would emplace people and equipment at one site.

“It limits you to a single location, but it gives you much more capability … more redundancy … more living and lab space,” Sanders said.

There are major differences between a short sortie and the long-term outpost: for example, the amount of needed hardware and the ability to get a crew through a lunar night. To sustain a presence on the moon will entail rotation of crews similar to that done on the international space station, Sanders observed.

Early demonstrations
The experts who gathered here at the Space Resources Roundtable focused on ISRU capabilities.

To hunker down on the moon, astronauts can, for example, use lunar resources to make oxygenand water, create radiation shielding and building materials, as well as fabricate spare parts and tools.

For sustained human presence on the moon, ISRU technology demonstrations should definitely be included and are a “must-have” in the very early stages of the lunar architecture. 

That’s the view of Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines. “The early testing and demonstration of reliable ISRU technology will significantly help to lower the cost, mass, and risk of future missions,” he told Space.com.

ISRU research and technology are currently at the stage in which early demonstration payloads can be developed for inclusion on the first robotic missions to the moon, Abbud-Madrid suggested. As a first step, he said, automated hardware can showcase drilling and excavation techniques, as well as validate chemical processing ideas.

“However, it must be emphasized that this evolutionary approach towards the use of space resources will only be possible if demonstration payloads are considered at the very beginning of the lunar architecture plan,” Abbud-Madrid said. They will be necessary “to fully test the capability of the various ISRU technologies and to resolve any problems encountered with the operation of such devices on the lunar surface,” he concluded.

Beyond viewgraphs
NASA’s 21st-century return to the moon is foreseen as being in full-access mode — having the capacity to reach anywhere on the lunar surface.

“If we are going to the moon, it’s a fairly diverse location of interest. You don’t want to limit yourself right up front,” NASA’s Sanders pointed out.

As for ISRU, it can be portrayed as being in a chicken-and-egg limbo status. It has clear benefits, but gaining respectability and mission-critical stature is still in the offing.

Nevertheless, regarding the future of ISRU, Sanders is quick to respond: “I think it’s more a question of when than if.”

The timing and pace for introducing ISRU is still up for discussion, Sanders continued: “Part of that is budgetary … part of it is convincing the users that it’s going to be available.”

ISRU hardware is now being built and tested, Sanders said. “It is first-generation stuff, but we’re getting past the viewgraph-engineering aspect.”

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