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Moon Space Science

NASA's New Mission to the Moon 283

mattnyc99 writes "Popular Mechanics has a new, in-depth preview of NASA's Orion spacecraft, tracking the complex challenges facing the engineers of the CEV (which NASA chief Michael Griffin called 'Apollo on steroids') as America shifts its focus away from the Space Shuttle and back toward returning to the moon by 2020. After yesterday's long op-ed in the New York Times concerning NASA's about-face, Popular Mechanic's interview with Buzz Aldrin and podcast with's Rand Simberg raise perhaps the most pressing questions here: Is it worth going back to the lunar surface? And will we actually stay there?"
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NASA's New Mission to the Moon

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  • Yes! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by LatexBendyMan ( 989778 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @04:01PM (#18100062)
    If we went back to the moon, I assume NASA's plan to would be to discover water so eventually the moon could be a docking station for trips to mars!
  • by AJWM ( 19027 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @04:15PM (#18100278) Homepage
    Lol. Many, many reasons.

    Yes, there's the lifeboat argument.

    There's doing research and rehearsals for manned exploration further out. I certainly wouldn't want to venture to Mars or the asteroids without technology tested a little closer to home first.

    Raw materials -- He3 (as fusion fuel) is one possibility. As a source for raw materials (silicon, aluminum, etc) for building solar powersats is another.

    Astronomical research -- lunar farside is the best place in the solar system for radio telescopes, it's shielded from Earth's noise. It's also a pretty good place for telescopes at all other wavelengths, especially if there's a manned base to swap out instruments, repair cameras, etc.

    A frontier. People need one, even if only a few actually pioneer it. Earth will go crazy even faster without one.

    Whole books have been written on "why", a Slashdot comment isn't going to do it justice.
  • Price Tags (Score:3, Interesting)

    by truckaxle ( 883149 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @04:35PM (#18100534) Homepage

    it's hard to see the pitfalls so far ahead, but I worry that once we establish a base on the moon, we might get bogged down there.

    I thought for the moment there, is he was talking back some foolhardy contemporary military adventure.

    I wonder what he meant by this, how could we get "bogged" down on the moon?

    Aside: Anybody know what the ROM price tag for an established moon based is compared to say the price tag for the Iraqi war?

  • Saturn V... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by __aaclcg7560 ( 824291 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @04:36PM (#18100542)
    There's an interesting article [] on what the space program could've look like if the Saturn V rocket program wasn't cancelled. The new program will be just a shadow in comparison.
  • by J05H ( 5625 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @04:49PM (#18100726) Homepage
    The Moon is like Iceland - easier to get to from Europe but there's not much there besides scenery. The Mars system (Mars, Phobos, Deimos) are New York City, Boston and Philadelphia. I guess this makes Mars-Earth L1 the Hudson River?

    The resources to build an entire civilization exist on/around Mars. The moon is a fossil world.

    We can learn some from Luna, and probably take the first steps to colonization there, but the real action is going to be on Mars. There is a lot of planet-specific engineering that needs to be done for either location. Lunar spacesuits won't work on Mars, there will be huge differences in sealing technology and energy generation (you can burn silane as internal combustion on Mars, for instance). We can learn as much in high orbit or at a NEO about colonizing Mars as we can on the Moon. Almost all technical development for any near-term colonization is going to be developed on Earth, though.

    If I had several Billion $$ right now, I'd commision a Russian-Bigelow spacecraft for a human mission to Phobos or Deimos. This is the ideal target for early development, energetically close to Earth, resource rich and within telepresence range of Mars. We can mine water and ship it back to LEO using technology we have now, or nearly. Russian companies have decades worth of human habitat experience, Bigelow would provide the main living space, custom tools purchased from best providers. The project would mine water and provide realtime control for robots throughout cis-Mars.

  • by Wellington Grey ( 942717 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @04:53PM (#18100778) Homepage Journal

    What for?

    I made this for Mars, but I think it still answers the question [].
  • Re:Good question (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PieSquared ( 867490 ) <isosceles2006 AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @04:57PM (#18100814)
    OK, so we shouldn't be testing things that could end up with a grey goo on the moon any more then on earth. We shouldn't try to build a bomb that could crack a world. But it really takes an effort to destroy a big rock in space in any meaningful way. What about experiments with bacteria and viruses that could (if we mess up *and* they escape) could kill everyone, or fusion power or exotic elements and crap like that? What if you wanted to use a virus to kill cancer but you weren't sure if it could easily mutate and kill regular cells as well. A nice place like the moon could prevent accidental genocide while you did some long term tests.

    The nice thing about the moon is that if accidentally release a huge cloud of radiation we just get a green moon instead of a black moon when it isn't lit by the sun, whereas on earth we would have hundreds of miles of radioactive wasteland that could otherwise be a nice place to live. I mean it would still kinda suck long term if we teraformed the moon (in the long term), but it would still not be nearly as bad as on earth.
  • by Boron55 ( 1060136 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @04:58PM (#18100830)
    This could be considered slightly offtopic, but I would add one more benefit of NASA Moon mission: the resurrection of public interest in space science (in general) and Space Science Fiction (in particular). Did you notice that during recent decades the theme of science fiction shifted significantly from space exploration plots to fantasy and alternative history? As a big fan of space science fiction, I feel my favourite trend is neglected. The reason is obvious - the whole space research both in USA and Russia/Europe fell into stagnation and public interest was lost. Remember how excited the science fiction writers were about space technology back in 60s? They were expecting humans to fly around solar system by 2000 and to distant stars in the beginning of this new century. Where are their hopes? Ruined. Now I really hope NASA mission will bring back the long-forgotten public excitement about space exploration, and the science fiction will once again picture the starships instead of dragons and elves. I hope.
  • by KKlaus ( 1012919 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @05:05PM (#18100936)
    Why not focus on robotic colonization instead? It's not like we'll be able to create colonies that would be useful without earth for many decades, so why not focus on building self sustaining colonies that _dont'_ contain people. In my mind it's breaking down a very hard problem into smaller, more managable ones. There aren't any compelling reasons (or at least few) to try and build a moonbase AND try and make it self-sustaining AND try and make it inhabitable all at once. We've seen the obvious benefits of unmanned craft in deep space exploration, so why not keep that in mind when we set up an installation at the moon? And anyway, in terms of trickle down tech, the advances in robotics would be HUGE. So one thing at time people.
  • Re:Race is over (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @05:17PM (#18101108)

    Far better to "waste" the money on space exploration than to subsidize poverty.

    Fundamentally, the reasons for spending money on space exploration are the same as the reasons for spending money on poverty: it's something that certain people want.

    The implicit part of your argument is that what you want is somehow more important than what other people want. I'm guessing that you would argue that it is primarily poor people who would benefit from spending money on poverty and that it is therefore primarily poor people who are in favor of spending money on poverty. The people who favor spending money on poverty are therefore motivated by selfish considerations and their desires are therefore less valid.

    It's not clear to me, though, that your desire to spend money on space exploration is any less selfish than another person's desire to spend money on space exploration.

    There's another possibility here, too. Maybe you acknowledge that human suffering brought about by poverty is a more pressing concern than whatever satisfaction would be gained from space exploration. In this case, your argument may be that people who suffer as a result of poverty deserve to suffer. Even if this is true in certain cases, it is obviously not true in many other cases (e.g. young children).

    A final argument you might have would be that spending money on space exploration will do more to alleviate poverty than spending money on poverty. Personally, I believe that humanity can achieve the goals it sets for itself and that it is much less likely to achieve goals that it does not set for itself. Certainly that's true about space exploration. If the USA does not set a goal of putting a base on the moon then it is unlikely that the USA will put a base on the moon. I see no reason that the goal of alleviating poverty is fundamentally different than the goal of putting a base on the moon.

  • by bware ( 148533 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @05:32PM (#18101342) Homepage
    We don't have viable breakeven fusion. We're not likely to get it anytime soon. Maybe in 20 years - same as they said 20 years ago, and 20 years before that. It's not as though He-3 or lack thereof is what's stopping us from having breakeven fusion reactors. Using a mythical fuel for a mythical fusion reactor as a reason to go to the moon makes your argument sound, well, mythical. Spending trillions of dollars to stockpile the mythical fuel for the mythical day in the future that it might be needed is crazy. If it's there, it'll still be there when (if) it's needed. Do we even know that it's there? Can you point me to peer-reviewed research?

    And the lunar surface is, for many reasons, a much worse place than space for telescopes of all sorts. Huge temperature extremes, not the most stable environment, lack of pointing control, you lose 50% of your observing time because your telescope is looking sunward and you have to have RPGs because the other 50% of the time you lose your solar power. We don't use a lot of RPGs, they're a pain in the butt. Heavy, expensive, launch issues, radiation issues, reliability issues and it's difficult to get as much power as you get from a solar panel. Solar power is easier and more reliable. I've worked on a couple of projects where, just for fun and to forestall objections we weren't being forward-thinking enough, we ran trades of a moon site. Space won. Putting stuff on the moon isn't any less expensive than putting it at L2 and L2 is better for a lot of other reasons.
  • Re:L5 (Score:3, Interesting)

    by carambola5 ( 456983 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @05:40PM (#18101474) Homepage
    There are a lot of very good reasons why missions back to the moon are a better idea than just going to the Lagrangian point.

    First, and most importantly, it provides a (relatively) close-by testing ground for requisite technologies. Many tasks that people take for granted are completely untested in such exotic environments as the moon and mars. In-situ resource utilization, for example, requires mining and processing operations which have no terrestrial equivalent. The problems present in off-earth mining are stumping even the most veteran mining engineers. We can't just "get water out of the ground" or "use the regolith to make bricks." Massive amounts of engineering need to be (and are being) initiated.

    Building a base at L4 or L5 does not give us the chance to "try out" these technologies long-term before committing them to the trip to Mars.
  • by Control Group ( 105494 ) * on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @06:11PM (#18101914) Homepage
    In no particular order:

    David Feintuch (the Hope series),
    David Weber (Honor Harrington),
    Alastair Reynolds (the Revelation Space universe),
    Stephen R. Donaldson (the Gap series),
    Robert L. Forward (various),
    Vernor Vinge,
    Walter Jon Williams (Dread Empire's Fall trilogy)

    Are all (relatively) recent authors you should check out if you haven't. It's not a scratch on the golden age of SF, of course, but there are still decent space SF books being written. I've also heard good things about Iain M. Banks and Peter F. Hamilton, but haven't read them yet, so I can't endorse them.

    Of course, it's possible you're already familiar with all of those, but you may be in for a treat if you haven't seen a couple of them.

    (And if you've got other recommendations to make that I missed, feel free to mention them; I'm always looking for good SF)
  • by nutshell42 ( 557890 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @06:24PM (#18102084) Journal
    Why? Colonizing the moon is a drastically different undertaking from colonizing Mars. The moon is essentially a vacuum. It's cold. It has no useful resources to speak of (and no, He3 won't be useful any time soon). 1/6th Earth's gravity. And it's fairly close.

    That's the beauty of doing the Moon first. A colony on the Moon is harder than on Mars in most respects. Due to the lack of an atmosphere the sand on the Moon is some of the most abrasive stuff you'll be able to find and the lack of gravity has massive implications for astronaut health and will make many tasks very tedious.

    OTOH, *if* something goes really wrong, you won't have to wait for a launch window, you won't give up years and years of work and you won't need a year to get back to Earth.

    Someone gets cancer? Back to Earth! No need to wait for spring []. Your water supply went the way of the Dodo? Back to Earth! ...

    The Moon makes such an excellent training exercise because like in just about any other exercise that's worth its money the problems you face are harder than the real thing while the risks are considerably lower. It also allows us to perfect much of the everyday equipment so it can resist the daily wear and tear and break gracefully while we wait for a better solution to get a spacecraft from here to Mars in a reasonable timeframe.

  • by PieSquared ( 867490 ) <isosceles2006 AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @07:00PM (#18102454)
    And this is where the resources on the moon come in handy. If you could actually mine the needed metals and maybe even fuel (He3 as fuel is a long way off but not impossible) on the moon, build the craft on the moon, and *then* launch to mars, you'd be far better off then anything built on earth as far as launch costs go.

    I personally doubt that will be viable for a while, but thinking long term moon launches will certainly be a "reason."

    All the same, I'm personally of the opinion that mars would make better practice for the moon then the other way around. The actual exercise of getting to the moon, landing, and returning is about all that would be useful that we couldn't do in earth orbit (or in the case of biosphere *on* the earth) easier. Also mars is far more useful in and of itself (instead of just practice for something else) then the moon is in the near future. Add to that it isn't really more technically difficult to get to mars, besides transit time, and I think it would make a better first target.

    So why the moon first? Because we're afraid that if we don't someone else will, and before we can get to mars (because lets face it that'll add a few years of checking calculations). That and going to the moon will probably take less money in new research, and if something goes wrong we at least have a chance of fixing it (see apollo 13... much harder to do with a 14 minute delay). Once we gain confidence (and public support with the great new images for the conspiracy theorists to compare to the originals... because lets face it one of the things to do on the moon is to reproduce the original photos with old cameras to explain why some things happen) people won't think mars is too much. And I'm willing to wait 15 years to go to mars if it means we'll do it right.
  • by Charcharodon ( 611187 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @07:08PM (#18102558)
    There is a big difference between just going to the moon, looking around and heading back home and going there and setting up shop. It sounds like they are planning on running five upwards of these ships at once. It would make things alot safer and more practical sending them in groups. Launch the first couple with no crews, just supplies and equipment then send the others one at a time up with crews so that they can have a constant supply of people working and still have a ship left over as a backup. Make the jump to the next level and build ten of them, so that several can be in the air at all times.
  • by fyngyrz ( 762201 ) * on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @08:13PM (#18103254) Homepage Journal
    Okay, perhaps I'm missing something, but in order to launch from the Moon to Mars, you need to get fuel to the Moon first

    One time, yes you do. But you also need to do that for a shot straight from earth. So that's pretty much a wash, agreed? The problem comes from multiple moon ->mars shots.

    You can't make fuel on the Moon, after all. There's nothing to make it from.

    Certainly you can, and yes there is. Think about the basics. What is a space drive, generally speaking? It is a device that expels [something] in the opposite direction from that which you desire to go. And how do we get some of the highest exhaust velocities we've ever attained? Ion drives. Electricity. Ion drives expel stuff [any stuff that will hold a charge] using electricity. And is there electricity on the moon? Think solar panels, and the answer, of course, is yes. Right now, Ion drives are limited in thrust, but they are *very* efficient. That's one useful approach, and there's nothing to say we won't improve them hugely. They're really excellent space drives because they can keep adding thrust on a continuous basis; they use less reaction mass because they can attain such a high exhaust velocity. They're low, constant thrust.

    But wait... How do you get anything off the surface with a low thrust engine? You need more power than an ion drive, right? Yep. Can you do it electrically? Sure. You can use a linear accelerator. Again, purely electrical technology, and you can fling things at astounding velocities. The longer the accelerator, the more human-freindly the acceleration will be. Short tracks require high G's, and we hate that. Anyway, again, it's down to electricity and nothing else. No need to lift anything out of the earth's gravity well, once the system is running. We're doing better and better at capacitive storage, and batteries will soon fall to ultracaps, or at least, that's how it looks today. Solar panels are getting less and less expensive, and more and more efficient, and silicon... is there silicon on the moon? Yep. There is. :-)

    And landing? Next, there are space elevators. We've got some really tough technical issues trying to build a space elevator on earth. The materials strength to gravity well challenge is just about at the edge of what is possible. But on the moon, this isn't at all the case. 1/6th the gravity means, pretty much anyway, 1/6th the problem. You can bring all manner of cargo up and down at absolute minimum cost and a reasonable constant energy expenditure. After all, space vessels should probably remain in space; it isn't them we want to get from here to there, it is the cargo. Space elevators are also much happier when there is no atmosphere; they just sit there. No blowing around, etc. On Mars, while the gravity is in your favor there, the atmosphere might be a little annoying. Still, it's more doable than it is here on earth.

    So, tell me... where is the savings, here?

    It's like anything else. You have to spend to build the infrastructure required to get things running on their own, but once that's done, then the returns defray, and eventually eliminate, the original investment. But it doesn't have to be an infinite loop of bringing things from earth to the moon. There are plenty of creative solutions to these problems - I'm not saying they aren't problems - and in the end, there is every reason to think we can pull this off and make it work, and work well.

    There are enormous amounts of natural resources out there. We should go get them. We should land and establish bases everywhere we can. We should explore, because knowledge rarely proves useless, and because a lot of us like to explore. The more resources we pull from space, the fewer we'll need to pull from the earth. Delivery of raw materials from space is pretty trivial, basically let gravity do it; the main thing, I would think, is to make them come in gently enough so as not to cook the atmosphere in the process, and avoid scattering them on impact. Water landings and gliding bodies come to mind. But that's not my area of expertise. :)

  • by AeroIllini ( 726211 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `inilliorea'> on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @09:06PM (#18103696)

    You can't make fuel on the Moon, after all.

    Well, maybe not fuel, but you can make all the oxidizer you could ever need, and that's the more important half.

    72% by weight of a typical Kerosene/LOX [] rocket engine is oxygen. And the soil/dust/regolith on the Moon is mostly oxygen []. We just need to perfect automated methods of extracting the oxygen from the soil, but that's an engineering problem, and not a showstopper.

    So you burn a bunch of fuel to get a bunch more fuel out of Earth's gravity well and deposit it on the moon. Then, you launch from the Moon, burning yet more fuel to climb out of the Moon's gravity well, and a bunch more to make the shot to Mars.

    Not exactly. You burn some fuel to bring a small amount fuel from Earth to the Moon, and don't bother to bring oxidizer. Then you combine the fuel you brought with LOX you harvested from the surface of the Moon, and launch to Mars with that. Since you're only leaving a 1/6g gravity well, you will need far less fuel to leave the moon and go to Mars than you would to leave Earth and go to Mars, assuming you left during the launch window when the Moon has a higher orbital velocity with respect to Mars than the Earth does (which happens about once a month). All this adds up to an energy savings.

    Of course, this all requires some sort of infrastructure to work, like a moonbase, and that will be expensive to build. But once the infrastructure is in place, the long-term energy savings are substantial, especially if we start doing things like harvesting objects outside the Earth's gravity well for the other half of the fuel/oxidizer ratio. There's water in comets--that's a hydrogen source. Most asteroids have the same composition as Carbonaceous chontrite meteorites, which are chock full of organic compounds--these can be cracked open to collect both hydrogen and nitrogen. Hydrogen can be burned by itself or combined with oxygen to make hydrogen peroxide (a low-energy monopropellant used in some thrusters). Nitrogen can be combined with oxygen to form dinitrogen tetroxide (a decent rocket fuel that requires an oxidizer) or with hydrogen to form hydrazine (a high-energy monopropellant). I'm sure people with more experience in chemistry and astronomy can suggest many other possibilities as well.

    The bottom line is, there's lots of fuel available out in the solar system, outside the big gravity wells, and taking advantage of launching from a small gravity well using fuel harvested from other small gravity wells will result in a substantial energy savings.
  • So what.....? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by IHC Navistar ( 967161 ) on Wednesday February 21, 2007 @11:24PM (#18104746)
    Pfff! The moon is just big chunk of iron, titanium, oxygen, and magnesium. Nothing that could *EVER* be mined in the future at a huge profit or anything.....

    Ya know, this is a giant mineral deposit that that is 3,474.206 km in diameter. Not only that, but you don't ene need to really 'dig' to get at the stuff - scoop it up, and load it into a furnace.

    If they push hard at a serious colonization of the moon, there is a *lot* of money to be made.

    But wait... there is probably gonna be some group of "Moon Huggers" who will want to declare the moon some kind of "preserve" or something..... definitely nothing useful for humanity.

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