Back to the Moon with NASA’s Approach?
OK, this is the week 50 years ago that men first walked on the moon. We did it five more times and then in December of 1972 we left and have never gone back. Now, there is a new buzz in the press about going back and doing it soon. My contrarian thought: sorry to deflate your balloon but it’s not going to happen (sigh!).
First thing to get straight: NASA’s manned space program is not a program of space exploration. It is a jobs program for mostly white, male, highly educated, highly paid engineers and technologists. And now it has found another public teat from which to suck and rationalize continued funding.
Fanfare please! We are going back to the moon with Artemis program by 2024. Apollo was our original manned moon program and Artemis was his twin sister in Greek mythology. The Artemis program will also have the first woman to land on the moon. Slick isn’t it? You’ve got to admit that while NASA may be crappy at building and running successful, efficient manned space programs after Apollo, it’s pretty good at hiding it with solid marketing and PR.
Think that’s harsh? After Apollo NASA needed a new rationale to sustain its raison d’etre. Viola – enter the space shuttle. First flown in 1981 – about ten years after we left the moon – it was supposed to be our low cost reusable access to space. That didn’t quite work out. Given its design by committee and need to insure that all the right political constituencies’ itches were scratched (companies, congressional districts, etc.), it worked out to a staggering cost of $60,000/kg in order to put something in low earth orbit (LEO).
Sadly, that’s not the worse of it. By the time it ended in 2011, the shuttle program killed more people than any other space vehicle in history. “Let me spell it out for you: out of five Shuttles–Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavor—two met a disastrous and fiery fate. That’s a 40% vehicular failure rate and a flight failure rate of 1.5%. This would have grounded any other vehicle permanently.” (From: Carol Pinchefsky at Forbes)
It readily became obvious that even though regular rocket launches were still expensive they were still a lot cheaper than the space shuttle. With potential users drying up, NASA went looking for another rationale to justify continuing the program. Boom! Enter the Space Station Freedom (later packaged as the International Space Station or ISS). The first module was launched in 1998.
The ISS has been labeled as the single most expensive thing ever built at $120B. There is plenty of criticism about its scientific value and of course America has no way to get to it. (The US pays the Russians $75 million per astronaut to get up and back in rockets and space capsules that were first flown by them in the 1960’s. Talk about salt in the wound.)
SpaceX, a new player, has a radical approach to reusability that has lowered the cost to reach LEO down to $1700/kg. Space X has resupplied the ISS with its “Dragon” capsule and docked to it with its “Crew Dragon” test vehicle. So, it appears we are finally close to an economical access to space. Is this a sea change in manned space exploration?
NASA’s sponsored launch monopoly, United Launch Alliance (ULA), and its members – Boeing and Lockheed – are under a lot of price pressure and accordingly SpaceX is out competing them. The US Air Force has estimated that a ULA launch costs $422 Million and a comparable SpaceX launch was around $95 Million. In 2018, SpaceX broke the record for the most commercial launches in one year at 20.
Additionally, the ISS is reaching its end of life. Some accounts show that astronauts aboard the ISS spend 85% of their time just maintaining it. Seems like it may not be long for this world and with it goes Boeing’s fat support contract. With the launch market swinging to SpaceX and the ISS going away, Boeing, Lockheed, their subcontractors and most members of congress are worried that the trough they have been drinking from is about to dry up.
Not to worry – unless you really want to go to the moon. Enter the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule. Boeing gets the SLS, a giant new rocket – now several years behind schedule and Lockheed gets the Orion. Together we’ve spent $16B so far and the GAO estimates they are $1.8B over budget. NASA assures us this is the only way to get back to the moon. The SLS is so expensive it may only have one launch per year, if that.
But, there is another buzz about getting back to the moon. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and others like him propose a much simpler and less expensive program. A lot of aerospace engineers have long argued that deep space missions should be staged out of low-Earth orbit. And as Aldrin has thought about the current state of NASA and private industry, he has come around to this way of thinking, too.
He therefore envisions building the “Gateway” not near the Moon, as Artemis proposes, but rather in low-Earth orbit. From this gathering point, missions could be assembled to go to the Moon or elsewhere. Aldrin calls this a “TransWay Orbit Rendezvous,” or T.O.R., because it represents a point of transferring from one orbit around Earth to another.
Inexpensive commercial launch vehicles and astronauts in commercial crew capsules would reach the LEO gateway. There a space tug that could move up to 25 tons would shuttle back and forth between the gateway and the moon where it would deploy a landing and return spacecraft. Overall, this is a much simpler and less costly approach.
Unfortunately, it does have a flaw. The traditional NASA constituencies play a much smaller part. Here’s maybe the perfect quote for understanding the US space program, from Rep. Randy Weber, whose district is adjacent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (from Tim Fernholtz, firstname.lastname@example.org):
“When we partner with industry, how do we ensure that we don’t take jobs away from our NASA facilities?” Weber asked. “It’s critical that we…still model…the space shuttle and ISS programs where integration, operations and other activities are still done [by NASA]—did I mention Johnson Space Center’s close to me? How do we ensure that that happens? We don’t want those jobs to go away.”
By John Pientka