Image: Habot
Pat Rawlings  /  NASA
The "Habot" mobile lunar base concept is a radical departure from studies. The six legs of the structure permit it to walk robotically.
By Senior Space Writer
updated 3/3/2004 10:21:59 PM ET 2004-03-04T03:21:59

NASA has begun to plot out its escape route from low Earth orbit, putting itself on a return journey back to the moon, planting footprints on Mars, and heading off to targets beyond.

In his mid-January space pep rally , President Bush charged the agency with signing up to a new astronautical agenda — part of which called for extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015.

Always keen on responding to a White House directive, NASA has done its bureaucratic best by creating Code T: the Office of Exploration Systems. Still in its organizational infancy — more a flurry of viewgraphs and line charts of authority than anything that's actually building things — the Exploration Systems Enterprise is rapidly taking charge of NASA’s future vision.

Not only NASA has the moon in sight. Several commercial firms are ready to go the lunar distance, too, perhaps giving the moon the real business — as a tourist Mecca.

Logical step
President Bush has established the goal of a human return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond — particularly Mars. Beginning no later than 2008, the first in a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface are on tap to research and prepare for future human exploration.

Using a yet-to-be Crew Exploration Vehicle, the first piloted mission to the moon is listed as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly longer periods of time.

The president explained in his Jan. 14 vision statement at NASA Headquarters: "Returning to the moon is an important step for our space program. Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions. Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the earth's gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy, and thus, far less cost."

Bush continued by noting that the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials, he added, 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 said.

Getting your lunar legs
Setting up a home away from home on the moon is under active study at NASA. Inflatable bases, "wagon train" concepts and underground bunkers are among the array of proposals evaluated over the years.

At last month’s Space Technology and Applications International Forum in Albuquerque, N.M., lunar base ideas past and present were offered by Marc Cohen of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. He is an architect in the center’s Advanced Space Projects Branch.

One notion — conceived by NASA’s John Mankins, a human and robotic technology specialist — is a Habitat Robot, dubbed "Habot" for short.

Habot is a radical departure from lunar base studies, Cohen noted. Habot modules would land on six movable legs, making use of those legs to strut their stuff robotically away from a lunar landing zone.

"With self-ambulating lunar base modules, it would be feasible to have each module separate itself from its retro-rocket thruster unit, and walk [miles] away from the landing zone to a pre-selected site. These walking modules can operate in an autonomous or teleoperated mode to navigate the lunar surface," Cohen reported.

Going mobile
On arrival at a predetermined site on the moon, the six-legged walking modules can bond. That is, they combine and make pressure port connections among themselves. The result: a multimodule pressurized lunar base.

Moon-landing astronauts would find a ready-and-waiting base. Once the lunar explorers depart the scene, the Habots separate from each other to being their trek to a new address elsewhere on the moon. It is also possible for crew members to go along for the ride in their mobile Habot.

"There have been hundreds of lunar base and habitat studies. We’ve learned a great deal from them," Cohen told "The goal is to develop a much broader, sustainable, justified program of exploration."

To get to Mars, Cohen said, it is absolutely essential to rigorously test a variety of technologies beforehand — and the moon offers such a testing ground.

Getting unpiloted spacecraft to Mars has proven difficult in the past. One out of three succeeds, Cohen said. "Even the most dedicated and courageous astronaut would think twice about going on a mission to Mars where the probability of getting there alive was only 1 in 3  … and that doesn’t even mention getting back."

Problem solving
The moon can be utilized to resolve at least three issues before leaping to Mars with humans, said Wendell Mendell, NASA manager for the Office of Human Exploration Science at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

"First of all, it’s really important to understand how the crew will perform on a mission to Mars. That trip is three years long," Mendell said. It's critical to know ahead of time how crew members interact and work with each other, plan daily operations, handle sickness and perform other activities.

Image: Moon base design
Among a number of moon base concepts studied in the late 1980s was a 50-foot-wide (16-meter-wide) inflatable habitat. This structure could accommodate the needs of a dozen astronauts on the surface of the moon.

"So the moon represents a place to really work on the crew," Mendell said.

A second issue is the relationship between the crew and ground control.

"On a Mars mission, the crew is certainly going to be more autonomous. Because of the distances involved, you can’t really converse. You can send packets of messages, sort of like faxing," Mendell noted. "So there’s going to be a whole new mode of mission operations that has to be worked out and understood."

Lastly, there is need to fully shake-out all hardware as to reliability and servicing patterns, Mendell said.

All these and likely other items should be done on the moon prior to Mars departure. Doing so would assure mission success and make certain the safe return of the crew to ticker-tape parades back here on terra firma.

"If my ideas are true, then it implies we’re going to have some kind of facility on the moon. It would be a place where people would stay for long periods of time. Some people might call that a lunar base," Mendell said.

Lunar orbiter
But before any lunar outpost dots the moon, there’s survey work to do.

Already swinging into high gear is NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Scientists and engineers there have begun scoping out a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to be launched in 2008.

Lunar work under way includes staff members at Goddard’s Earth Sciences Directorate looking intensively at the application of their terrestrial remote-sensing hardware and software to the moon. "There aren't any trees up there, but there may be useful applications in mapping lunar mineralogy," Paul Lowman, a scientist within Goddard’s Geodynamics Branch, told

One early list of remote-sensing jobs for the moon has been drafted, keyed to identifying indigenous resources on neighboring Luna.

For one, there’s need for a focused look at the moon’s south and north polar regions to clarify the nature and extent of lunar hydrogen deposits, both as water ice and as implanted solar-wind hydrogen.

Also a priority is using lunar orbiting radar, not only to peer into darkened craters in a search for water ice, but also to find safe landing sites. Similarly, a laser survey of the moon’s polar regions is advised to help determine safe touchdown zones for future craft.

Meanwhile, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., engineers are talking about using a landing technique for the 2009 Mars Science Laboratory — the Sky Crane — to gently plop payloads onto the moon.

Not another Apollo
Lowman feels that a new lunar program need not be another Apollo program.

"We do not need to start all over again where we were in 1961. We know much more about the moon, and we still have most of the infrastructure developed for Apollo. In addition, there have been enormous advances in space technology and scientific instrumentation since the end of the Apollo program," Lowman explained.

Lowman said lunar missions could start with orbital surveys to study scientifically and strategically critical locations, such as the lunar south pole. Early robotic missions could emplace a network of astronomical instruments: telescopes, submillimeter interferometers, radio astronomy dishes and optical interferometry systems.

"This robotic complex could serve as the nucleus for a manned settlement in the next decade," Lowman said.

There is no argument that important science can be had at the moon.

"The fledgling lunar robotic program, as a precursor to human expeditions to the moon after 2015, is not a science-driven activity, but rather focused on a combination of applied science/engineering and technology demonstration activities," said Jim Garvin. NASA Headquarters' lead scientist for the moon and Mars.

NASA’s intent is to use lunar territory as a way to earn its Mars wings. Testing hardware and procedures to assure human adventurers can make round-trips to the Red Planet safe and sound is a priority outlined in the Bush space plan.

Competition and free enterprise
Still to be sorted out in NASA’s lunar initiative is the potential role of commercial firms. While the big aerospace firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are already moving into high gear to provide space exploration hardware, so too are smaller firms.

Image: SuperSat
As shown in this artist's conception, the commercial SuperSat would be assembled on board the international space station from major modules, then released by a spacewalker to begin its journey to the moon.
"The first step in the initiative is a lunar orbiter to gather data about the surface, and federal law clearly states that data purchase from the private sector is the method that NASA is required to use, absent compelling reasons to do otherwise," said David Gump, president of LunaCorp, based in Reston, Va.

Gump said that carrying out exploration in an affordable, sustainable way translates into taking an American approach that relies on competition and free enterprise.

"This means data purchase, and other approaches that put new exploration infrastructure into commercial hands, like contests and long-term leases. I've heard rumors that some academic labs or other contractors have been told to begin designing yet another federal space probe, but there's still hope that NASA will obey the law," Gump advised.

LunaCorp is eager to offer SuperSat, a moon probe that can be assembled on the international space station. After fabrication on orbit, it would then be sent into orbit around the moon. SuperSat could provide broadband communications from the moon, enhanced with sponsorship and television funding.

SuperSat is intended to deliver the first high-resolution digital video of a voyage from the Earth to the moon, and create the first digital map of the lunar surface — looking for safe landing spots near the moon's poles for upcoming rover missions.

NASA not alone in moon planning
SpaceDev of Poway, Calif., has completed the first phase of a privately funded study to design a low-cost robotic return to the moon. The study was performed for Lunar Enterprise of California (LEC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Space Age Publishing Company).

The study follows an earlier SpaceDev lunar orbiter mission and spacecraft design project funded by Boeing. The current study analyzes mission and spacecraft options for a Lunar Dish Observatory to be placed near the south pole of the moon.

The SpaceDev study found that the south pole of the moon is an ideal location for a variety of activities, including a dish-type observatory. Certain areas near the pole experience extended periods of sunlight for solar power and warmth, and are in direct line of sight to communicate with Earth. The study also found that insufficient data exist to choose a precise landing spot, and described the need for better navigation capabilities at and around the moon.

Jim Benson, SpaceDev founding chairman and chief executive, is quick to point out that NASA is not alone in wanting to visit the moon.

Europe’ SMART-1 is on its way. Japan is readying lunar missions for 2004 and 2005. India and China are also preparing to send a series of robotic missions to the moon.

"SpaceDev and others have been advocating the importance of a stronger U.S. private sector presence in and beyond Earth orbit for years. Recent public statements from high levels of government indicate more focus on such private-sector contracts and a return to the moon," he stated in a company press statement.

Taking the commercial route
In the long term, the moon is likely to become just a space cell phone call away. Perhaps the resurgence of lunar exploration could lead to the lunar landscape becoming a tempting travel destination for tourists?

That’s the view of Patrick Collins, a professor and space tourism expert at Azabu University in Kanagawa, Japan.

"Of course lunar tourism cannot start until the necessary facilities are constructed on the moon. However, there appears to be a largely commercial route toward this," Collins predicts.

As lunar infrastructure develops, there is the possibility of constructing buildings six times taller than on Earth. The moon offers any builder extraordinary potential for fascinating architecture.

"Domes will be able to be even larger due to the support from the internal air pressure. This will enable the realization of humans’ eons-long dream of flying like birds. Flying and flying sports will be a truly unique new attraction of life on the lunar surface," Collins suggested during an international lunar conference late last year.

Remembering the last lunar forays of Apollo — and the expensive bridge between Earth and the moon that was allowed to vanish — Collins said lunar tourism is going to be huge, a mainstream activity.

"And just as soon as it’s accepted that developing orbital tourism is of vital economic importance," Collins said, "the road to lunar development will be open … and it will not close a second time."

© 2013 All rights reserved. More from


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments