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NASA No Go for the Moon

Paul Kohlmiller


President Obama has announced the cancellation of the moon landing program that would have put astronauts back on the moon by 2020. This might be seen as good news/bad news. The bad news is that a key inspiration for the next generation will be lost. It means some NASA employees will be laid off.

The good news is that more money will be going to scientific missions. That means that NASA Ames will have few if any layoffs because of this change. The overall funding will be increased by $6 billion dollars over five years bringing the NASA budget to about $20 billion per year.

The increase will be used to research new propulsion technologies, developing on-orbit fuel depots, and more robotic missions. NASA administrator Charles Bolden said “We will pursue a more sustainable, affordable approach to manned exploration, and facilitate the growth of a new commercial industry.” Strong endorsements of the new plan came from former astronauts Sally Ride and Buzz Aldrin.

Norman Augustine, the chairman of the eponymous Augustine commission said that the president’s plan “does appear to respond to the primary concerns highlighted in our committee’s report.”

One key part of the new NASA budget is to continue support for the International Space Station until at least 2020. Previously, support for the ISS could end by 2015. The new plan also calls for more commercial ventures. The Augustine report says “The United States needs a means of launching astronauts to low-Earth orbit, but it does not have to be provided by the government.” The Augustine commission also found that the previous plan required increases of $3 billion per year. Thus the president’s plan saves $9 billion over 5 years and probably a lot more after that. In the meantime, there is the hope that commercial efforts and international cooperation will suffice for the next several years.

Wayne Hale on his NASA blog said “But if American astronauts are to ride to the international space station on a rocketship that NASA did not build, there will have to be a tectonic shift in NASA culture. Regardless of who builds the ship or operates it or what shape it takes, one thing is certain; NASA’s role will have be different. That will take a tremendous amount of energy, and time must pass.” (Jan, 22, 2010)

If NASA feels it is being punished then it has itself to blame. First, so many programs have exceeded budgetary constraints including the new Ares and Orion vehicles. Second, NASA acted like it was sitting around waiting for direction when it hitched its star to that of the most unpopular president in recent American history. Third, going to the moon had such a strong flavor of “been there, done that.”

What should the plan for NASA include

Details of the new NASA plan are TBD. But one difficulty is going to be finding a way to present it to the American public. “Going to the moon” was a very clear objective. How do you make NASA’s objective appear as clear when there is no heroic sound bite?

Vision, Reach, Grasp

Robert Browning said that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven/universe for?”. To that we can add that a person’s vision should exceed their reach. The space program can be seen as these three things: that which we can grasp, that which we can reach, and that which we can see.

We can see pretty far now and the James Webb Space Telescope will increase our vision. But improvements in resolution are slow. A sharp increase in our vision could come from a one light year baseline for parallax measurements. How could we do that? Let’s take the speed that the Saturn 5 rocket achieved when sending the Apollo spacecraft to the moon, about 24,000 miles per hour. Let’s call that speed 1 kranz in honor of the former NASA flight controller. The fastest spacecraft so far is the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto which achieved 2 kranz. That’s it for the last 40 years, 1 kranz to 2 kranz. Now imagine if we could speed that spacecraft up to .01c, 1% of the speed of light, call that a clark after Arthur C. That’s 267 kranz. If we could do that then we could send one space-based telescope at 1 clark in one direction and another in the opposite direction at the same speed. Thus after 50 years the two scopes would be 1 light year apart. The upcoming Gaia satellite for the ESA will be able to measure angular differences down to 10 microarcseconds. Given that kind of resolution and a one lightyear baseline, parallax could be used for objects up to 300 million lightyears distant. A distance so vast that relativistic effects will alter the results and the necessary background stars will be dim.

After these spacecraft are sent on their way, a following spacecraft could be launched once every 10 years. The newer craft will probably catch up to the earlier models. But the real point of the following craft is to enable communications back to Earth. A big step for mankind’s vision.

Reach should be robotic exploring craft. These have given us some of the greatest science. Examples are the Mars Rovers and the Phoenix and the Huygens lander on Titan. But orbital craft are robots of a sort as well such as Mars Explorer, Galileo around Jupiter and Cassini still around Saturn. Also, remember the flyby missions of Pioneer and Voyager designations and the current missions to Mercury and Pluto. The key robotic technology that needs to be on future missions is a drill. Such a device would be useful on the moon to find water, on Mars to find what lies beneath the surface, and on Europa to see if life of some form exists beneath its frozen oceans.

Grasp would then be whatever humans can do in space. At the moment, we have a pretty firm grasp of low earth orbit. Humans have occupied the ISS continuously for 10 years and before that the Mir for nearly the 10 years before that. That is likely to be the extent of our grasp for a while. The next likely step is the moon. The model for this should be McMurdo station (I got this idea from Christopher McKay at NASA). After learning how do to that, we should do the same on Mars. But there are many obstacles in the way. McMurdo Station doesn’t have to worry about water, is only slightly worried about radiation, and is able (with difficulty at times) to return humans back home in an emergency. And it absolutely does not need to worry about running out of atmosphere. You can’t get to McMurdo-building until these obstacles are solved. It’s true that we could go to the moon with Apollo-like intent but the only point to do that would be to prove that we can (again).


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