Sydney, Australia (SPX) Aug 13, 2009
In December 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 became the first humans to orbit the Moon. Going further than any explorers before them, they gazed at the barren, cratered landscape beneath them, saw the Moon's far side with their own eyes, and took some history-making photographs of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon.
On Christmas Eve, the crew made a live television broadcast to millions of people, reading from the Book of Genesis and showing video of the Earth. It was high adventure at its best, a feat only topped when Armstrong and Aldrin actually set foot on the lunar surface. Orbiting the Moon is certainly a great achievement, but can it really be sold as a mission objective today?
The future of NASA's human spaceflight plans are currently being reviewed by a panel of aerospace experts. One potential future scenario envisages "dash" missions, designed to get astronauts flying quickly beyond near-Earth space aboard NASA's new Orion spacecraft, which is currently in development.
One mission plan involves launching an Orion spacecraft to orbit the Moon, without any plans for landing in the immediate future. Sure, it could be technically feasible, and more exciting than a typical expedition to the International Space Station, but does it really have merit as a future plan for NASA?
The crew of Apollo 8 staged their mission as preparation for bigger things. Their mission was a practice run for flights that would eventually land astronauts on the surface. Apollo 8 tested the Apollo spacecraft in lunar space, as well as the Saturn 5 rocket used to launch it.
Later, Apollo 10 would also perform a lunar orbital mission, this time carrying a lunar module. As the first missions to orbit the Moon, they were also exciting voyages in their own right. The crews also took extensive photography of the lunar surface that assisted the search for landing sites.
Today, we have an extensive program of studying the Moon from orbit with the use of robot probes. A fleet of spacecraft from Japan, China and India has explored the Moon in recent times, and the USA has launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a spacecraft with the most powerful camera ever sent there. More orbiters are planned by various nations for the future.
What, then, would our intrepid Orion astronauts do in orbit around the Moon? Most scientific instruments that could be carried on an orbiting spacecraft work fine without a crew aboard. In fact, astronauts cause bumps and jiggles that can sometimes upset the fine aiming of cameras and other sensors. The success of the recent flotilla of robot spacecraft is a testimony to this.
There is always the possibility of doing things that only a human can do well. But what's to be done in lunar orbit? Most of the human-tended science in space is carried out on the International Space Station. Lunar space offers some differences in terms of particles and fields, where spacecraft are free from the protective magnetic shielding of the Earth.
But experiments to study these conditions could either be robotic (as in the radiation sensors on LRO and other spacecraft), or human tended at their final phase, such as sending biological specimens to lunar orbit aboard a biosatellite.
The latter would require a fairly long mission to produce any major influences, longer than an Orion spacecraft would probably stay in lunar orbit. This is one reason why we run experiments on the Space Station for long periods.
Someone will probably find some scientific applications for crewed lunar orbital missions of short duration, but are they enough to justify steering America's human spaceflight program in this direction?
An Orion orbiting the Moon could be used as practice for future landings, just like Apollo 8. But let's hope that we get that far in the Constellation program.
Like most observers, I'm craving the day when I will see an Altair lander touch the lunar soil, but I'm not sure that NASA will be allowed to reach this goal anytime soon. We could be buying half a lunar program now with the expectation of a second half tomorrow.
But the second half could be postponed, then postponed further, then scrubbed. By the time American astronauts are ready to return to the Moon, will we still be flying Orion spacecraft?
The dash to the Moon has also been linked to other missions in deep space. Orion missions have been proposed to locations such as the Lagrange points, areas in space where the gravity of the Earth and Moon are in equilibrium. These points have long been touted as ideal locations for everything from scientific satellites to space colonies.
The ultimate goal of the "dash" scenario involves missions to near-Earth asteroids, which would take astronauts further into space than ever before.
As a large anchor point in deep space, the Moon has its advantages for practicing for such missions. It would be interesting if the lunar orbit scenario proved to be more useful for these options than actually landing on the Moon itself!
The lack of a deep gravity well at these targets means that no large lander would be required for the expeditions. An asteroid mission would also be scientifically productive and novel.
There could be another factor driving the perceived need to dash to lunar orbit. Others would like to go there, too. Apollo 8 was not originally intended to fly to the Moon. The original mission plan called for it to test the lunar module in Earth orbit. But the lunar module was experiencing delays in its production, and NASA was concerned about keeping the pace of missions running.
Quietly, there were also aware of Soviet plans for sending a Zond spacecraft on a circumlunar trajectory with a cosmonaut on board. Fears had arisen that a manned Zond mission could send a Soviet cosmonaut to the Moon before Apollo, which would represent a tremendous propaganda victory. In reality, Zond was not ready to carry humans, and would never fly anyone to the Moon.
China has announced its interest in landing astronauts on the Moon after 2025. Before they do this, they will need to send astronauts to lunar orbit, or possibly launch a Zond-style circumlunar mission.
Nobody really knows when this will happen, but China will have the ability to begin planning for this after 2014, when the new Long March 5 launch vehicle is operational. Perhaps the geopolitical climate that drove the flight of Apollo 8 is repeating itself at the Augustine Commission today.
No humans have ventured to the Moon in almost 40 years. It's a depressing track record for a world that treats spaceflight as routine. Orion orbital crews may not be able to land, but an orbital mission would at least break this cycle of inactivity. Spacewatchers and the general public would be entertained. Whole generations have grown up without the direct experience of seeing explorers leave Earth orbit.
A return to the Moon, albeit a modest one, would stimulate interest in spaceflight. This, in turn, might help provide the impetus among voters and lawmakers to go to the next step, and put bootprints in the regolith. Lunar landings would not only be exciting, but productive. Science can be done in the short-term, and the long-term results will contribute to humanity gaining a solid foothold beyond Earth.
The next steps for NASA's human spaceflight program will be set in the months ahead. Let's hope we can take big ones.
Dr Morris Jones is an Australian space analyst and writer. His latest book, "The New Moon Race", is available from Rosenberg Publishing.
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Germany Shoots For The Moon By 2015
Berlin (AFP) Aug 12, 2009
An unmanned German mission to the moon is plausible by the middle of the next decade, the official in charge of space flight said on Wednesday, despite the financial crisis battering the country. "A German moon-landing is possible during the course of the next decade, around 2015," Peter Hintze, state secretary for economy and technology, told ZDF television. Such a mission would cost ar ... read more
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