On Wednesday, the Bush Administration is expected to reveal a long-awaited White House strategy for the future of the United States' space ambitions, one that purportedly includes a NASA go-ahead for returning humans to the Moon as early as 2013.
If reports prove correct, the new space agency agenda is not a rewind back to Project Apollo. The soon-to-be-unveiled plan is expected to use the cratered lunar terrain as a literal pit stop on the way to planting footprints on Mars.
President Bush has apparently given the green-light to the creation of an Earth-to-Moon transportation link. Robots would first do the heavy-lifting of piecing together and sustaining a human-tended lunar base.
Setting up a permanent home-away-from-home on the Moon for astronauts does not appear in the cards, according to some reports. Rather, the lunar landscape is viewed as a close-at-hand practice and proving ground for more adventuresome travel to the red planet.
Although wheeled robots don’t fear to tread across the red planet, how humans will fare the trek and trauma of exploring there remains to be seen.
While details of the White House strategy are still sketchy, space scientists, a moonwalker, and others don’t mind filling in the blanks.
Technologies and techniques
The Moon's value lies in its ability to give us both the theoretical knowledge and operational experience of living off-Earth and using space resources," said Paul Spudis, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland.
"If I were advising the President, I would suggest that he declare that the mission of this new effort is to develop the technologies and techniques to mine, process, and use lunar resources, specifically, the hydrogen and oxygen of the lunar poles," Spudis told SPACE.com .
Spudis said that secondary objectives would be to develop the operational strategies using people and machines to maximize the efficiency and results of planetary (lunar) surface operations. "The final goal is to begin to establish an Earth-Moon transport infrastructure, based on the use of lunar resources."
"If we can go to the Moon and develop this transport system, we will have the ability to go anywhere in the solar system, not just Mars," Spudis explained.
Doing so, Spudis added, is a paradigm-shifting moment for the space program.
"If we can break the bonds of Earth and re-fuel our spacecraft, both interplanetary and Earth-orbital, our whole way of doing business in space will be forever changed for the better. Our limitations will no longer be driven by the capacity of our launch vehicles, but by our own imaginations," Spudis concluded.
"This thing is much bigger than a Mars mission. It is nothing less than a revolution in how we will live and operate on the New Frontier, Spudis concluded. "It's very exciting, and good for the country! I can't wait for the real announcement!"
The Bush space plan has the potential to do things in more clever ways than ever done before. That’s the view of Mike Duke, a space resources expert at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden.
First of all, a new heavy-lift launch vehicle to get to the Moon isn’t required. But the catch is developing and certifying the production of propellants from lunar resources. Such a fuel plant on the Moon, or perhaps a space propellant depot, could support a transportation system beyond low Earth orbit.
"A propellant production capability on the Moon could be established robotically with spacecraft of a scale that is about the same as we are now considering for automated lunar missions," Duke told SPACE.com.
Ramifications for Mars
Propellant cranked out by this system, Duke added, would be sufficient to reduce the need for launch capability from the Earth by at least a factor of two for a round trip mission to the Moon and a factor of four if a refueling depot is established at the L1 Lagrangian point in deep space.
A Lagrangian point is a spot at which a small body, under the gravitational influence of two large bodies, will remain somewhat at rest relative to them.
"That is a clever way of doing it, not just depending on brute force, and it would have ramifications for Mars, as well as potential commercial benefits," Duke advised.
University of Houston physicist, David Criswell, has had a longstanding, powerful interest in the Moon. Given the potential for robotic and lunar exploration being restarted, utilizing the Moon as an energy hub is within reach, he said.
Criswell has been formulating the plans and the justification for building bases on the Moon to collect solar energy and beam it through space for use by electricity-hungry Earthlings. He is convinced that a Lunar Solar Power (LSP) system can cultivate into being a prosperous world, one that is attainable through clean, safe, low-cost electrical energy.
Criswell estimates that by the year 2050, a well-to-do population of 10 billion would require about 20 terawatts of power, or about three to five times the amount of commercial power currently produced.
Terawatts of power
The Moon receives more than 13,000 terawatts of solar power, and harnessing just one percent could satisfy Earth’s power needs, Criswell said. The challenge is to build a commercial system that can extract a tiny portion of the immense solar power available and deliver the energy to consumers on Earth at a reasonable price.
Criswell’s lunar-based system to supply solar power to Earth is based on building large banks of solar cells on the Moon to collect sunlight and send it back to receivers on Earth via a microwave beam.
"Even today, most of us don’t seem to realize that the Moon was explored sufficiently 30 years ago for use now," Criswell explains in a recent issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) magazine, IEEE Potentials.
"We can use the Moon to provide an enormous flow of net new, useful work. We can move from depleting the Earth and the biosphere to sustaining, nurturing, and protecting it," Criswell argues.
Specific to the rolling out of the Bush space program, Criswell is hopeful something wonderful is about to happen.
"This week President Bush can create a real space program. Now, our space program is based on Earth and supported exclusively on the backs of taxpayers. Bush and the U.S. Congress can enable U.S. companies to establish new lunar industries as part of a permanent U.S. base on the Moon," Criswell told SPACE.com.
Those companies can build lunar solar power bases, Criswell pointed out. Within fifteen years Earth can begin shifting to clean, affordable, and sustainable lunar solar electric power.
Criswell said that power beaming from the Moon can also open up a new era of deep space exploration.
"Lunar industries can build and power real spacecraft that safely and affordably let people travel throughout the solar system and live and work about Mars, Venus, and the major moons and asteroids," Criswell predicted. A real space program will let our next generation look back on President Bush’s announcement as humankind’s real ‘Independence Day’, he said.
Robert Zubrin, head of the Mars Society, a space advocacy group, said rumors are contradictory as to what mix of Moon/Mars the President will actually announce.
"NASA needs a goal, and that goal should be humans to Mars," Zubrin said. The goal needs to "real".
"It must be sufficiently imminent in character to force NASA to change its spending from its current random activity to focused action to develop, build and fly a coherent set of hardware to implement the program plan," Zubrin said.
Zubrin is author of the recently released book, Mars on Earth: The Adventures of Space Pioneers in the High Arctic (Published by J. P. Tarcher; September 2003).
Mars via the Moon
Using lunar missions as an intermediate milestone to test out and exercise a subset of the needed humans-to-Mars hardware — that approach is fine, Zubrin said.
However, commonality of hardware for both the Moon and Mars is essential, Zubrin emphasized. "This overall coherence needs to be designed into the program from the start," he said.
Some speculation has already surfaced that an Apollo 8-like — humans around Mars but not land -- is being discussed.
"The Mars mission must actually go to Mars. Missions that simply fly by Mars, go into Mars orbit, or to the Martian moons are insufficient," Zubrin stressed. "The purpose of sending humans to Mars is not to set a new altitude record for the aviation almanac. The purpose is to explore and pioneer a new world. This can only be done with astronauts on the Martian surface."
Getting our ‘lunar space legs’ back
Jack Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut – he and Gene Cernan were the last humans to set foot on the Moon – said that his first inclination is to support a modernization and upgrading of Apollo concepts to reach for the Moon again – including a Saturn 6 booster, and transition to less conservative trajectories "as we get our lunar space legs back."
Schmitt said that going to the Moon accelerates going to Mars in a number of ways. Just for starters:
- you get a low cost, heavy lift booster into the inventory, perhaps largely paid for by private investors if you do it right;
- you get helium-3 fusion technology that can be adapted to an Earth-orbit to Mars-orbit continuous acceleration-deceleration rocket;
- you get lunar hydrogen, water, oxygen and food to reduce the Earth launch mass until a Mars settlement is self-sufficient;
- you get Mars surface facilities designs derived from lunar designs that will have indefinite life engineered into their construction and maintenance strategies; and
- you get experience in working in deep space again, a much less forgiving environment than earth-orbit.
"I pray that the White house will insist that the effort be a partnership with private investors, based on the commercial potential of helium-3 fusion, as well as the ‘bridging businesses’ to get there," Schmitt said.
America’s possible return to the Moon next decade has already stirred interest in international quarters. How the Bush space strategy encompasses the role of other space faring nations is not fully known at the moment.
Nevertheless, President Bush’s lunar initiative "can challenge space agencies" and "trigger opportunities for ongoing activities and collaborations", says Bernard Foing, Executive Director of the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG).
Europe is presently on its way to the Moon, with the European Space Agency’s SMART-1 technology mission, launched late last year.
"SMART-1 will provide opportunities for scientific research, mapping of lunar resources, and studying potential sites for future landings and lunar bases", Foing said.
International robotic village
ILEWG has identified a "roadmap for lunar exploration", with a progressive approach, starting with precursor missions such as SMART-1. Japanese, Chinese and Indian space agencies are preparing to launch lunar probes from 2004 to 2008.
Foing said that for ILEWG, a second phase will be to deploy a series of robotic lunar landers. These craft are slated to perform new investigations, to return lunar samples that help decipher the history of our own Earth, and to test exploration technologies for future
lunar and planetary missions.
These autonomous robotic landers will be controlled from Earth with tele-presence and virtual reality, Foing said.
As a third phase, ILEWG envisages an "international robotic village" around 2015.
Advanced landers and rovers from various space agencies would share facilities for exploiting local resources, producing energy, conducting life support experiments, and deploying infrastructure in preparation for human arrivals.
Live off the lunar land
ILEWG sees a fourth phase around the 2020 time period with a permanently inhabited lunar base, to conduct research, to exploit lunar resources, to learn to live off the lunar land, and to test technologies for voyages to Mars.
The European Space agency is also defining an exploration program dubbed Aurora. That program calls for a series of missions leading to humans on the Moon and Mars.
"An international lunar base before 2020 is possible", Foing added, depending on the demand of the public and commitment of political actors from space-faring nations.