Figure 1. Full moon, as photographed in 2010. (c)2010 Wikimedia

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Some Musings about Getting to the Moon

Seeing the Big Picture

By F. E. Harris

November 30, 2011

Introduction

The recently released audio recording of John Kennedy and James Webb arguing about NASA's purpose in the 1962 (whitehousetapes.net), shows that James Webb had a much narrower vision of the uses of space, the difficulties of the manned moon landing project, and the political process necessary to get Congress and the American people to fund the moon project through to completion. If Webb had had his way, NASA might never have landed astronauts on the Moon. http://whitehousetapes.net/clip/john-kennedy-james-webb-robert-seamans-hugh-dryden-jerome-wiesner-fly-me-moon

There are a couple of lessons here, for the future of space flight. NASA was very focused in the 1960s. About 90% of NASA's funding went into a series of programs that answered the questions of, how do you get people to safely fly in space to the Moon, land there, and safely return to Earth. The space program was a program then, working toward a goal. Manned space has become aimless since then. By looking at how NASA identified and solved the many problems they faced in the 1960s, we can see how to make the manned space program effective once again.

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Section 1: JFK's Vision

I think I agree that JFK got the whole picture. I talked to the daughter of someone who was there in the room, for those meetings, and I believe the programs JFK meant when he said, "not essential to the success of the lunar program," were possibly things like:

  • spy satellites
  • weather satellites
  • communications satellites
  • nuclear weapons in space
  • manned orbiting laboratory - for military or spying purposes
  • interplanetary missions to Mars, Venus, and Mercury
All of these things could be put off for 6 months or a year, in 1962, if the choice was trading off delays on the objectives that led directly toward landing on the Moon:

  • Space navigation between Earth and Moon
  • Testing the radiation environment between Earth and Moon
  • Characterizing the Moon precisely: Getting close up photos, orbiting the Moon, robot lander on surface of Moon.
  • Practice landing on Moon, with robot spacecraft
  • "Long duration" manned flight - minimum of 2 weeks, the time needed to get to the Moon and back
  • Practice rendezvous and docking in orbit
  • Develop a heat shield capable of return from the Moon
  • Develop a large enough rocket for the job
  • Determine the best strategy to get to the Moon and back. Options
    1. Single spacecraft flies to the moon, lands, takes off, returns to Earth, lands on Earth.
    2. Earth orbit rendezvous: Launch several modules, assemble spaceship in Earth orbit
    3. In 1962, I don't think they had thought of Lunar orbit rendezvous yet: That is the actual Apollo plan

The actual Apollo plan became Lunar Orbit rendezvous: Launch 1 rocket carrying the command module, service module, and Lunar Lander (called LEM in 1964, for Lunar Excursion Module, but called LM or Lunar Module from 1965 onward.) The notion of having the crew separate, and using a small second spaceship designed just to land and take off from the Moon was too radical for 1962. In 1962, people were just starting to realize that the sci-fi concept of one ship that contains everything, lands on the Moon, takes off without leaving anything behind, and all comes back to Earth, was not practical.

As you can see, there were plenty of smaller, hard problems to be solved before lunar landing and return would be possible. Some problems were not so small. Kennedy was right: If NASA had not focused mainly on a research program designed to find the answers to the 9 or 10 problems of getting people safely to the Moon, they could not have done it by 1969. Every Gemini mission tested one or several things that were essential for landing on the Moon. The Ranger program tested precise navigation to the Moon. The Lunar Orbiters mapped the Moon, and found potential landing sites. The Surveyor program practiced landing on the Moon with robot landers. Every one of these programs provided data that modified and refined the Apollo program.

I think Webb was talking about pressure from the military to develop spy satellites, pressure from some top scientists to do deep space probes, and pressure from commercial interests to do weather and communications satellites, which made enormous profits for the country very quickly.

By 1965, weather satellites were saving farmers billions of dollars a year. Looking at the country as a whole, the whole space program became profitable in 1964 or 1965, just based on the advantages of weather forecasting. Also in 1964, I think, Telstar was launched, and immediately turned a profit, carrying transatlantic phone and video.

After 1969, the Russians adopted a space policy that was much like the one Webb advocated in 1962: They concentrated on the military and technological gains that could be obtained from Earth orbit, and forgot about manned missions to the Moon. They sent robotic probes to the Moon and to several planets, but the main Russian emphasis was on low Earth orbit.

After Apollo, NASA lost focus. This was mainly due to the Viet Nam war. NASA had ambitious plans for Moon bases, and manned expeditions to Mars, but the expense of the war limited NASA to just one big manned project, which turned out to be the shuttle. But without a space station to visit, or manned projects beyond low Earth orbit, the shuttle lost much of its purpose for existing.

NASA had intended to have a space station for the shuttle to visit, called Space Lab, made inside the third stage of a Saturn 5. They launched Space Lab in _____, but the shuttle was not ready in time to service Space Lab, and it crashed into the Pacific Ocean before the first shuttle launch. Space Lab was inhabited by __ crews before it crashed.

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Section 2: What to do with the ISS

The ISS is useful. They do many zero-g biology and chemistry experiments, that could not be done if it was spinning. They also do Earth-observation and astronomy experiments that could not be done on a spinning platform. (BTW, there are experiments done on the ISS that require so little vibration/acceleration, that exercise is banned when they are being run.)

Last, docking with a spinning space station has never been worked out, unlike what we saw in 2001 a Space Odyssey. The space shuttle captured satellites that were spinning out of control, to repair them, but that is not the same.

I think designing a spinning pair of modules, with a docking adapter in the middle, would be a very worthwhile experiment. It would interfere with too many of the experiments done on the ISS, which require a vibration free environment, so it would have to be a separate station. Perhaps 1 or 2 ISS modules could be split off and used as part of this new station.

I favor having an air-sealed bearing, so that the spinning part of the station could be connected to a non-spinning docking module. That would make operation of this station much safer. It also means that they would not have to waste reaction mass stopping and restarting rotation, to dock or undock spacecraft. There could be airlock doors on either side of the bearing, which has to be a hollow passage also. The airlock doors could be shut if there is any leakage around the bearing.

It is not necessary to spin this station up to 1 g. Even 1/6 g, the gravity of the Moon, might provide health benefits, and would be worth researching. 1/3 g, the surface gravity of Mars, would be an even better experiment.

After a few years of operation in low Earth orbit, close to the ISS so that the 2 stations could serve as lifeboats for each other, ion drives could be attached, the station unmanned, and moved to the Lagrange point L1, to serve as an anchor for a Lunar space elevator. Another possibility is that it could be made ready for reuse as an interplanetary spaceship. NASA mulls sending part of space station to an asteroid , describes a variation on this idea.

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Section 3: Russian analysis of Phobos-Grunt failure

http://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=27289.msg837307#msg837307

I liked the summary and conclusions. Experience gained with an ongoing program is a real help. Tradoffs of complexity, risk, and cost. Lots of untried hardware on this mission.

For other countries as well as for Russia, this is a powerful argument for a "to the Moon first" strategy for Mars and asteroid exploration. Prove more of the hardware before you take the big leap.

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Section 4: Conclusions

NASA is still uncertain about what to do with their part of the ISS, in a few years. There are still grave doubts about our ability to plan and fund a Mars mission, at this time. Some of the above ideas might be worth considering, as next steps in manned space, to prepare the way to Mars.

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