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From the earth to the moon, and then beyond

Our first steps to the cosmos lead to the moon, and someday even the International Space Station might be capable of making a lunar odyssey. Commentary by NBC News' Jay Barbree.
Image: Station and moon
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.NASA file

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
A multiple-exposure picture 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.

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 published by Open Road Integrated Media, is available from , , ,   and .