What does NASA’s drive to return to the moon have to do with worlds of exoplanets and astrobiology that are generally discussed here? The answer is actually quite a lot.
Not so much about the science, although current NASA plans would certainly make possible some very interesting science regarding humans living in deep space, as well as some ways to study the moon, Earth and our sun.
But it seems especially important now to look at what NASA and others have in mind regarding our moon because the current administration has made a top priority of returning landers and humans to there, prospecting for resources on the moon and ultimately setting up a human colony on the moon.
This has been laid out in executive directives and now is being translated into funding for NASA (and commercial) missions and projects.
There are at least two significant NASA projects specific to the moon initiative now planned, developed and in some cases funded. They are the placement of a small space station that would orbit the moon, and simultaneously a series of robotic moon landings — to be conducted by commercial ventures but carrying NASA and other instruments from international and other commercial partners.
The goal is to start small and gradually increase the size of the landers until they are large enough to carry astronauts.
And the same growth line holds for the overall moon mission. The often-stated goal is to establish a colony on the moon that will be a signal expansion of the reach of humanity and possibly a significant step towards sending humans further into space.
A major shift in NASA focus is under way and, most likely in the years ahead, a shift in NASA funding.
Given the potential size and importance of the moon initiative — and its potential consequences for NASA space science — it seems valuable to both learn more about it.
Development work is now under way for what is considered to be the key near-term and moon-specific project. It used to be called the the Deep Space Gateway as part of the Obama administration proposal for an asteroid retrieval mission, but now it’s the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G.)
If built, the four-person space station would serve as a quasi-permanent outpost orbiting the moon that advocates say would enhance exploration and later commercial exploitation of the moon. It would provide a training area and safe haven for astronauts, could become a center for moon, Earth and solar science, and could continue and expand the international cooperation nurtured on the International Space Station (ISS) project for several decades.
In its Gateway Memorandum, published last month, NASA and the administration also made clear that the station would have, as a central goal, geopolitical importance.
As stated in the memorandum, “the next step in human spaceflight is the establishment of U.S. preeminence in cislunar space through the operations and the deployment of a U.S.-led lunar orbital platform, “Gateway.” (“Cislunar space” is the region lying between the Earth and the moon.)
The administration requested $500 million for planning the LOP-G project in fiscal 2019. The first component to be built and hopefully launched into cislunar space under the plan is the “power and propulsion element.”
Five companies have put together proposals for the “PPE,” and NASA officials have said they are ready to move ahead with procurement.
During a March meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Michele Gates, director of the Power and Propulsion Element at NASA Headquarters, said the agency will be ready to move ahead with procurement of the module when the five industry proposals are completed.
Some of those companies had been involved in studies for the cancelled Asteroid Redirect Mission and Gates said, “Our strategy is to leverage all of the work that’s been done, including on the Asteroid Redirect Mission.”
Five different companies have contracts to design possible space station habitation modules as well.
So the plan has some momentum. If all moves ahead as described, NASA will launch the components of the Gateway in the early to mid 2020s. More than a dozen international agencies have voiced interest in joining the project, including European, Japanese, Canadian and other ISS partners.
As part of that outreach, an informal partnership agreement has already been signed with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, with the possibility of using a future Russian heavy rocket to help build the station and ferry crew.
The other NASA moon initiative involves an effort to send many robotic landers to the moon to look for potential water and fuel (hydrogen) to be collected for a cislunar and ultimately lunar economy.
NASA had worked for some time on what was called a Resource Prospector, a mission to study water ice and other volatiles at the lunar poles. But this spring NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the Prospector was being cancelled because it was not suited to the what is called the new Exploration Campaign — NASA’s concept for a series of missions that will initially use small, commercially developed landers, followed by larger landers.
So the Prospector project is now considered “too limited in scope for the agency’s expanded lunar exploration focus,” the agency said in a statement. “NASA’s return to the moon will include many missions to locate, extract and process elements across bigger areas of the lunar surface.”
The agency also says it will rely on private companies to design and build the landers, as well as launching them into space.
So these are the out-of-the gate projects NASA has in mind for the moon. They, however, are hardly where the big money is going. That is directed to the heavy rocket under development and construction for more than a decade (the Space Launch System, or SLS) and the Orion space capsule.
They are designed to be the main conduits to the Gateway and perhaps beyond some day, and they have been enormously costly to build — at least $22 billion to construct up through 2021, NASA officials told the Government Accounting Office in 2014. And that doesn’t include the more costly second SLS rocket scheduled for 2023 with a crew aboard.
What’s more, it is estimated to cost at least $1.5 billion to launch each SLS/Orion voyage in years ahead.
Since this column is primarily about space and origins science, I was drawn to the conference held late Feb. in Denver — billed as the Deep Space Gateway Concept Science Workshop. The idea, surely, was to share and showcase what science might be achievable on the mini-space station.
As you might imagine, a major scientific focus was on the challenges to humans of living in deep space and techniques that might be used to mitigate problems. Abstracts included studies of the effects of radiation on astronauts, on drugs, on food, on the immune system and more.
NASA and others have studied for years radiation and micro-gravity effects on astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but conditions in a deep space environment would be quite a bit different. Probably most importantly, astronauts aboard the Gateway would be exposed to much more dangerous radiation than those in the ISS because that low-Earth orbit station is protected by the Van Allen radiation belts.
There was also an intriguing proposal to study the ability of lunar regolith (the rock, dust and gravel on the surface) to shield growing plants on the station from radiation, and others on the role and usefulness of plants and micro-organisms in deep space.
Scientists also proposed many different ways to study the moon, the Earth and the sun. Harley Thronson of NASA Goddard, one of the moderators of the conference, said that sun scientists seemed especially excited by the opportunities the Gateway could offer.
As far as I could tell, there was but one proposal that involved astrobiology or exoplanets. It was a plan by scientists from SETI and NASA Ames to study Earth with a spectrometer as a way to understand and measure potential bio-markers on exoplanets.
So there’s undoubtedly good science to be done on a lunar space port regarding human space flight, the moon, the Earth and sun.
What I wonder is this: Will this new, intense and costly lunar focus on the moon take away from what I like to think of as The Golden Age of Space Science — the unending breakthroughs of recent decades in understanding planets and distant moons in our solar system, detecting and characterizing the billions and billions of exoplanets out there, as well as revealing the structure and history of the cosmos.
I’m not thinking about today but about when costly NASA flagship space observatories or major planetary missions come up for approval, or non-approval, in the future. Will the funding, and the deep interest, still be there?
Others more knowledgeable about the mechanics of space travel also criticize the Gateway as a costly detour from what long has been considered the main goal of space exploration — sending humans to Mars — and as redundant when it comes to accessing and studying the moon.
On a more encouraged note, a lunar station and lunar base could become part of a much larger space architecture that will allow for all kinds of advances in the decades ahead. This is precisely the kind of build-out that Thronson, who is Senior Scientist for Advanced Astrophysics Mission Concepts at NASA Goddard and Chief Technologist for the Cosmic Origins and Physics of the Cosmos Program Offices, has been working towards for years.
Ever mindful of the uses of such a space architecture, he pointed out one potential use of a lunar space station that is seldom heard: If a powerful new telescope in deep space needs repair or upgrading, he wrote in an email, there’s no way to get humans to it now. The Hubble Space Telescope could be fixed because it was not in deep space and astronauts could get to it.
Thronson sees a potential parallel use for the Gateway, as he described in an email. “My astronomy colleagues, including myself, have been for many years advocating using a Gateway-type facility to assemble, repair, and upgrade the next generation (and beyond) of major astronomical missions. Nothing beats having a human on site, if there are complicated activities that need to be carried out.”
Marc Kaufman is the author of two books about space: “Mars Up Close: Inside the Curiosity Mission” and “First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Search for Life Beyond Earth.” He is also an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. He began writing the column in October 2015, when NASA’s NExSS initiative was in its infancy. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported and informed by NASA’s Astrobiology Program, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.