Image: Station and moon
NASA file
The International Space Station is seen from an unusual angle during the shuttle Atlantis' final fly-around in July 2011. The moon is visible above and to the right of the station.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/20/2012 2:08:26 PM ET 2012-07-20T18:08:26
Commentary

In a five-part series, NBC News' Jay Barbree lays out a vision of spaceflight in the 20-teens for the 2012 presidential candidates.

There’s a house in Earth orbit.

It’s called the International Space Station with five bedrooms, two baths, a gym and a 360-degree bay window.

It got there thanks to more than a decade of construction flights by America’s space shuttles and Russia’s big Proton rockets and Soyuz spacecraft.

It cost $100 billion, and it’s owned by 15 nations.  A crew of six live aboard, taking care of maintenance chores, doing science as best they can — passing the days on a fixed orbital track inclined 51.6 degrees with the equator, at heights about 250 miles.

For the past decade this international orbiting outpost has been teaching us how to live in space, doing it within hours of Earth’s safety.  It’s akin to learning how to stand clinging to the rails of one’s crib.  As members of the Earth-moon system, we are not yet free of our cradle.

If we wish to be free, we should start by moving about our entire home.

The fact is that Earth and the moon make up one celestial system. Neither world could survive without the other.  It is the center of this dual system, rather than the center of Earth itself, that describes an elliptical orbit around the sun in accordance with Kepler’s laws.  It is also more accurate to say that Earth and moon together revolve about their common center of mass, rather than to say the moon revolves about Earth.  This common center of mass lies beneath Earth’s surface, about 3,000 miles from our planet’s central point.

The Hubble Space Telescope has detailed a long-anticipated galactic smash-up between our neighboring galaxy Andromeda and our Milky Way.  But not to worry, say astronomers — our sun and Earth-moon system should easily survive what will be a galactic merger proceeding at 1.2 million miles per hour.

If the Earth-moon system is our home, shouldn’t we be caretakers of both worlds?  You wouldn’t manicure your front yard and leave your back to become overgrown with weeds.  Shouldn’t exploration of our own place and the Earth-moon system’s Lagrange points (all five of them) be our baby steps?  Wouldn’t it be silly to go trotting off to asteroids and Mars, millions of miles away, before we knew our way around our own neighborhood?

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked, “When are we going to Mars?”  He answered, “I don’t know how to get to Mars.”

Everyone laughed, knowing that one day we would know. 

For now, as Neil Armstrong says, “The lunar vicinity is an exceptional location to learn about traveling to more distant places.”

From the earth to the moon?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could use the International Space Station to chart a new orbit stretching from Earth to the moon?  The simple answer is that we are fast approaching having the technology — technology we can afford. The costs could be covered by the 15 nations supporting what might well become the International Space Vehicle. Turning the ISS into the ISV could recoup much of the group’s $100 billion investment.  Even more members could join, reducing the costs for all — promoting harmony, keeping disagreements at a minimum among many of Earth’s people.

Image: ISS and moon
Dani Caxete
A multiple-exposure picture from Spain's Dani Caxete shows the International Space Station passing over the moon's disk.

You may say that moving the station can’t be done. You might think the rocket power needed would rip the fragile space station apart.  That’s correct, if you use rocketry from the space shuttle era.

Gene McCall, retired chief scientist for the Air Force Space Command, suggests a different way to do it.

"Low thrust systems applied continuously for days, or even months, can move the space station to the moon without disturbing a crew member’s drink," McCall told me in an email. "The Ad Astra VASMIR engine is, for example, an initial step in the right direction.  A constant thrust only 10 times that achieved so far by Astronaut Hall Of Fame Member Dr. Franklin R. Chang Diaz could move the ISS to the moon.  It is truly amazing an engine with only 11 pounds of thrust can move a million-pound object over a distance of 240,000 miles.  The key is that space is not only airless, it is also frictionless.

"The station is an ideal structure for accommodating people and cargo in a slow trip from the Earth to the moon.  The house-size space platform could, after scouting the best places for humans to live on the lunar landscape, be used to help establish scientific outposts and to supply goods and people while teaching us how to go into, and how to live in space.

"And within a few years when we have the SLS heavy-lift rockets and the big Orion spacecraft we can go farther – as Neil Armstrong says, ‘Learning how to fly to, and remain at, the Earth-moon Lagrangian points would be a superb precursor to flying to, and remaining at, much farther distances.’”

“The naysayers will surface immediately," McCall said, "but perhaps there will be enough qualified and competent forward thinkers to study the problems in a positive way and to accomplish one of the great future goals of humankind."

McCall pointed out that the Russians are already thinking about trips to the moon, and building a new six-person spaceship called the Advanced Crew Vehicle for the task. That just goes to show that Americans aren't the only ones thinking about the Earth-moon system.

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Once we know how to live and care for our own system, once we’ve established an affordable, science-driven method of learning, moving steadily outward in logical increments, we will have taught ourselves how to reach Mars.

The question will be who should go?  Will it be a global effort, or a task for Earth’s leading nation?

It’s likely the first Martians are already here.  They are our sons and daughters, our grandsons and granddaughters, even our great-grandsons and great-granddaughters in their first years of school.  They will grow up thinking about deep-space travel, and in the 2030s or 2040s they will decide to take the flight. 

Will it be a return or a one-way trip?  Will they establish a basic colony, being joined later by others, or will they return to family and friends on mother Earth?

God, what an exciting time it will be!

What a future for those who will live it! 

How the Armstrongs, the Aldrins, the Glenns — all of us who were here for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — would like to be around for the 21st century’s greatest adventure!

Our mortality says we can’t, but our spirits won’t be far away.

'Spaceflight in the 20-teens':

Cape Canaveral correspondent Jay Barbree is in his 55th year with NBC News. Barbree wrote the New York Times best-seller "Moon Shot" with Alan Shepard, and was a finalist to be the first journalist in space. His space team received an Emmy for broadcasting the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.  Barbree broke the news about the cause of the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident on NBC Nightly News and is a recipient of NASA’s highest medal for public service. An updated version of "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," published by Open Road Integrated Media, is available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Store  and Kobo Books.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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