It seems to me….
“It is time to kickstart a new U.S. space transportation industry and time to spread that industry into space itself, leveraging our space station legacy to ignite imaginations and entrepreneurship so that we can move farther out, back to the Moon, out to the asteroids, and on to Mars.” ~ Rick Tumlinson.
NASA has announced its intent to return to the Moon by 2024 and a number of private companies have correspondingly announced plans to develop the capability enabling them to also get there by that date.
There are several obvious problems concerning this announcement making that date very unlikely. Unless it is only intended as another publicity stunt similar to what the U.S. accomplished fifty years ago way back on 20 July 1969, there is inadequate funding and a total lack of preparation for the establishment of a permanently manned base which logically should be the next goal. The U.S. has unquestionably had the technical ability to return to the Moon any time since last there but has lacked the motivation and has been reluctant to invest in a project that would be extremely beneficial to our nation. Given the extensive elapse of time since the last mission, anything less than establishment of a permanently manned base is nothing less than a repeat of what was done over a half century ago. As it is being pushed by both Trump and Pence, the cynical suspicion is that the primary motivation is not science or exploration but publicity enhancing their personal image in preparation for the 2020 Presidential election. NASA’s leadership has shown such little interest in manned space exploration that U.S. astronauts even have had to rely on Russia for traveling to the International Space Station (ISS) after the U.S. Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011.
While there supposedly has been considerable technological advancement in manned space capabilities since the last time we were there, it is not readily apparent from released mission plans. Whatever technological advancement there might have been over that interval, it is obvious there has been even less corresponding political progress. NASA’s heavy rocket boosters still essentially rely on the same Saturn V engine design that propelled the last mission a half century ago. The Orion manned capsule appears to be very little more than an enlarged Apollo; both are similarly shaped but as the Apollo was designed to hold only three passengers, the Orion will accommodate six. That is not what most people would consider to be fifty-years of progress.
NASA’s primary launch vehicle development project, known as the Space Launch System (SLS), has a modular design comprised of interchangeable parts supposedly able to accommodate improving technology and capable of supporting varying mission goals. Boeing serves as the primary contractor on SLS and is responsible for designing, developing, producing, and testing the rocket’s core and upper stage as well as its avionics.
The initial SLS Block 1 version is intended to lift a payload of 95 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) which will be increased in the Block 1B and the Exploration Upper Stage. Block 2 will replace the initial Shuttle-derived boosters with advanced boosters and is planned to have a LEO capability of more than 130 metric tons. These upgrades would allow the SLS to lift astronauts and hardware to destinations beyond LEO such as to a circumlunar trajectory as part of its lunar Exploration Missions 1 & 2 with Block 1 (and possibly to Mars with Block 2). The SLS would be used to launch the Orion Crew and Service Module and possibly support trips to the ISS.
As part of its human spaceflight initiatives, NASA wants to build a space station in orbit around the Moon, called the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G), which would serve as a waypoint for astronauts traveling to and from the lunar surface. Elements of the LOP-G would be delivered to lunar orbit using the SLS Block 1B. Similar to construction of the ISS, NASA hopes to build the Gateway in pieces by launching one module at a time and connecting them together in lunar orbit. NASA has proposed launching the first piece of the Gateway containing the solar panels and propulsion systems on a commercial vehicle.
The House Appropriations Committee released a spending bill for the 2020 fiscal year providing $5.13 billion for NASA’s exploration account, an increase of a little more than $100 million from NASA’s original 2020 request but so far ignores an amended White House budget request for an additional $1.6 billion. Larger increases for Orion ($159 million), SLS ($375 million), and ground systems ($193 million) are offset by a reduction of $618 million to exploration research and development which funds development of the lunar Gateway and lunar landers. Providing the additional $1.6 billion in NASA funding in fiscal year 2020 would be an important step toward meeting the stated 2024 goal but would also require substantial and sustained increases in funding over the next five years.
The agency has been requested by the Trump administration to put astronauts on the moon on an accelerated schedule and making a manned mission to Mars another top priority – all with his recommendation of a $500 billion reduction in the overall 2020 NASA budget. NASA is politically touting the request as somehow good for the agency claiming its original target was to send humans to the Moon by 2028 (though they now believe it could be achieved as soon as 2024).
The budget proposal would effectively cancel development of the more powerful version of the Space Launch System (SLS) known as the Block 1B, which would have a powerful upper half called the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), that could simultaneously carry a significant amount of cargo as well as crews. This is problematic as initial delivery of materials is critical for establishment of any permanent manned lunar base.
There is a common apocalyptic misconception that with a warming planet, ocean acidification, impending mass extinction, and immense resource depletion, civilization as we currently know it could potentially encounter the possibility of a catastrophic event sometime within the not too distant future. While serious problems admittedly exist, an entirely new frontier in space is opening. NASA, rather than sending astronauts on bold missions beyond our planet, the space agency for the past fifty years apparently forgot its intended purpose and relented to the caprices of successive administrations leaving it directionless and underfunded. But now, the future of space travel appears to have been reenergized as private enterprise increasingly claims leadership where NASA fears to tread.
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, belongs to a new generation of moneyed entrepreneurs working to reduce the cost of lifting materials and people into orbit. Along with SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have all developed working versions of spaceships. Branson has kept his focus on space tourism while Bezos and Musk are developing new classes of reusable rockets for space exploration and commerce.
But Musk, Bezos, and Branson are only the first of a small army of new companies entering space enterprise. Today, in 2019, the global space economy is valued at $350 billion with predictions it will rise to $1 trillion dollars by 2040. Just in 2018, space companies received $3.9 billion in private investment.
Lockheed Martin revealed its proposed plans to build a lunar lander. Lockheed’s lander (which has yet to receive a proper name) would be part of the company’s “early Gateway” infrastructure for a sustainable human presence on the Moon.
Space exploration is more than just rockets. Companies like Planet Labs and Spire Global are seeking ways to offer space-based continuous monitoring of Earth’s agricultural, environmental, and industrial factors. Space manufacturing represents opportunities for companies such as Made in Space already exploring 3D-printing techniques for zero gravity.
One of the primary problems about the intended return to the Moon is that all the information released so far is extremely short on details as to its intended purpose and what it hopes to accomplish. If the intent is to establish a permanent manned base, there does not seem to be sufficient planning or preparation. If not, there is very little new to be gained.
Similar to here on Earth, one of the primary considerations on the Moon is location, location, location. The Moon provides a realistic proving ground for testing of critical deep space exploration technologies in close proximity to Earth but there are only a limited number of prime locations in which to establish an initial base; it is likely that if not developed relatively quickly, China will be able to claim first choice.
The lunar lowland basin at the south pole provides several crucial resources in which to establish a more permanent presence on the Moon such as water, in the form of ice, and sunlight, for solar power where some thin crests, peaks, and crater rims have sunlight for as many as 200 lunar days at a time. Shoemaker, Haworth, Faustini, Sverdrup, and Shackleton craters might have the most abundant ice deposits. Given resources, the polar environment makes surviving the lunar night a more manageable engineering problem.
Early pioneers spreading westward across the U.S. did not take construction materials with them, only the means of construction. Materials transport costs are the largest expenses of establishing a permanent base. Astronauts will need to bring their own life support systems, which can be prohibitively costly to transport. Without lightweight flexible technologies that can manufacture a variety of products using limited resources, initial base occupants will quickly encounter challenges. It therefore will be critical to develop basic modules necessary to support life prior to establishment of any permanent base but also fabrication capabilities for construction of all additional essentials.
Any base will need to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible – any prolonged dependence on continued materials from Earth will quickly become politically infeasible without relatively rapid expectation of full cost recovery (profit). Initial emphasis must therefore be on life support systems; e.g., air, water, other basic sustenance items; and facility expansion to accommodate future additional personnel. Only when the facility is operational should scientific research begin so extended stays and exploration can be supported without necessitating continuous frequent supplies and materials from Earth.
Development of a life support system capable of providing basic human necessities; air, water, food…; is one of the greatest challenges to prolonged residence – development of such technology would be equally beneficial here on Earth. Human waste is both problematic and unavoidable but also the greatest available resource; typically generating more than half the waste on a typical space mission. This obviously includes urine and feces but also carbon dioxide and water from crew respiration, perspiration and hygiene; food waste, packaging waste, and even dead skin cells.
Considerable development is essential prior to establishment of any permanent operational base. Non-pathogenic microbes might be part of the solution for future space exploration as they are able to convert a wide variety of raw materials into a large number of essential products. Using engineering principles, synthetic biology could be harnessed to turn microbes into tiny programmable factories which possibly along with genetically modified plankton, krill, and/or algae should be sufficient to meet basic human needs. A minimum of two prefabricated life support systems capable of providing nutritionally sufficient nourishment, air, and clean water would need to be pre-deployed to the intended base site prior to initial personnel arrival.
Oxygen, metals, and silicon are raw materials that will be required for long-term habitation, production of all structural materials, and other items including solar arrays. Extraction of key mineral items from lunar soil will be essential to provide materials such as aluminum and glass used for construction and fabrication. The main mineral composition of lunar regolith includes oxygen, silicon, iron, calcium, aluminum, magnesium, and titanium. Anorthite is similar to the ore bauxite from which aluminum is produced on Earth and several possible extraction techniques have been developed that could be used in the lunar environment. It would be necessary to pre-deploy fully operational mineral extraction modules, along with associated fabrication modules, prior to personnel arrival.
The lunar environment will be highly hazardous and regardless of how thorough risk analysis and anticipation of any and all real or theoretically improbable contingencies might be, injuries and fatalities will regrettably occur. It must be assumed that Murphy’s Law will apply and such incidents must be anticipated. Medical diagnosis and treatment capabilities will be necessary immediately upon initial arrival as rapid transport to emergency facilities here on Earth is not an available option.
In the event of critical module failure, replacement cannot be quickly provided. Redundancy is therefore extremely essential. Pre-deployment of all necessary modules will require numerous shipments of items and adequate supplies from Earth prior to any personnel arrival. As of now, none of these modules have even been developed much less packaged in a form suitable for transport. Additionally, there doesn’t appear to be any public estimate of what initial establishment of a lunar base would actually cost. Cost estimates would be extremely high but once fully operational could relatively quickly begin to provide cost recovery.
People initially sent to the Moon, or eventually Mars, will out of necessity be specifically selected for the skills they can contribute. Management organization will initially be highly hierarchical. Population settlement will not become less restrictive until a permanent base of several hundred people is well established. As soon as a couple of hundred people are living extra-terrestrially, fundamentals like healthcare, education, policing, and elderly care become increasingly important – and there isn’t any necessity for those services to be organized and operated similarly to those on Earth.
Whether the U.S. will return to the Moon by 2024 is doubtful. Unless that return is merely a repeat of the last visit, something we have had the ability to do for over fifty years, there has been too little preparation and too little budgeted to support establishment of a permanent base within that time frame. Realistically, NASA’s budget would require an additional $20 billion and a multi-year commitment for sustained support rather than a one-time allocation of $1.5 billion. Still, any increased interest into once again resuming the long-delayed expansion beyond our planet is commendable.
How can anyone even begin to comprehend the amazement and wonderment of the totally inexplicable universe? There is so much to learn and see that never can be done from the confining limitations of a single small rock isolated in an extremely small area of all that exists. We have to go. So many reasons exist for going and essentially none to not. There are critics of the initial expenses but the potential rewards are unimaginable and far exceed any potential cost. Who are those who lack the dream of unlimited frontiers? Of freedom from Earthly bonds? Our future has to be outward. It is our future, our destiny. It is time – past time – to take those initial steps. If not now – WHEN?
That’s what I think, what about you?
 Rick Tumlinson is the co-founder of several space companies and non-profits including Deep Space Industries, Orbital Outfitters, the New Worlds Institute, and the Space Frontier Foundation.
 Grush, Loren. The President’s NASA Budget Slashes Programs And Cancels A Powerful Rocket Upgrade, The Verge, https://www.theverge.com/2019/3/11/18259747/nasa-trump-budget-request-fy-2020-sls-block-1b-europa, 11 March 2019.
 Frank, Adam. The Future of Humanity Is Interplanetary, Medium, https://medium.com/s/2069/the-future-of-humanity-is-interplanetary-e9bd32de2f5f, 31 January 2018.
 Foust, Jeff. A Trillion Dollar Space Industry Will Require New Markets, Spacenews, https://spacenews.com/a-trillion-dollar-space-industry-will-require-new-markets/, 5 July 2018.
 Blenner, Mark. Microbes Might Be Key To A Mars Mission, Scientific American, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/microbes-might-be-key-to-a-mars-mission/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tech&utm_content=link&utm_term=2019-01-15_more-stories, 14 January 2019.