Another giant leap

The spacecraft for a future manned lunar mission could be launched in sections using existing rockets and self-assembled in orbit by docking with its component parts.

The first details of this lunar mission have emerged from Boeing following President Bush’s call for a return to the Moon by 2015, 43 years after the last Apollo flight.

Boeing’s NASA systems division’s latest thinking, outlined in an internal briefing document, envisages a lunar spacecraft that consists of at least five sections. The Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), announced by Bush, would form part of the lunar spacecraft.

Edmund Memi, a spokesman for Boeing NASA systems, said that the modular lunar spacecraft, which would include the CEV, is only at the concept stage pending further discussions with NASA.

‘There would be four or five elements for a lunar mission. It would include a command capsule section, a habitat section and a specialised power module,’ he said.

The modular craft would need a powerful propulsion system to get the entire ‘lunar transfer vehicle’ into orbit around the Moon and back again. The habitation module for the trip could conceivably form the basis for the living quarters for a longer six-month trip to Mars.

The lunar transfer vehicle would also need a lander that would, like the Apollo lunar excursion module, be able to return the astronauts to the mother ship in orbit. Finally, it would also need a return-to-Earth capsule, possibly the CEV.

While details of the other sections of the lunar spacecraft are not yet available, the CEV is expected to be very similar to the Orbital Space Plane (OSP). The OSP, which was to act as an emergency return vehicle for the International Space Station (ISS) by 2008 and to transfer crew to and from the station by 2012, has been under development for the past 12 months. NASA has said it could operate beyond the station’s 160km altitude.

Following Bush’s moon mission announcement, the OSP requirements have been put under review, so the programme could now become the CEV.

Neither NASA nor the two contractors competing for the new OSP-CEV contract, Boeing and Lockheed, were willing to comment on the requirements review, which they claim is still in its early days. But the Moon focus for CEV should mean substantial changes to the original OSP ‘Earth to low Earth orbit and back’ concept. A final choice for the design and contractor for OSP was expected by this summer, although this timetable is now unlikely.

This will cause further problems for the US as it must provide an Emergency Return Vehicle (ERV) for the ISS beyond 2006, yet NASA has no ready vehicle. Russia’s Soyuz craft has provided the ERV role so far, and will do so under existing agreements until 2006.

NASA could buy Soyuz after 2006 but it is illegal for the agency to purchase Russian equipment under the 1999 Iran Non Proliferation Act (INPA), which was passed when the US intelligence services discovered that Russian space company Energia was building Soyuz for NASA by day and building long-range rockets for Iran by night.

It has been suggested that the US could instead pay the European Space Agency (ESA), and ESA could then pay Russia for the Soyuz, but this has proved unpopular with ESA. The US may simply have to repeal INPA or amend it.

Under the Bush moon plan, announced on 14 January from NASA headquarters in Washington DC, the lunar transfer vehicle would take astronauts to the lunar surface by 2015 at the earliest.

To pay for this Bush wants the shuttle fleet to be retired in 2010, by which time the ISS will have been completed. The ISS was originally scheduled for completion in 2007, but the Columbia disaster last February and the resulting hiatus in shuttle flights have delayed this.

Robotic missions to the Moon are due to begin in 2008, to conduct surveys for landing and potential Moon base sites. In 2008, the CEV would also fly unmanned for the first time. By 2014 the CEV is due to carry out its first manned mission, followed by a manned moon mission in 2015. A Moon base could be in place by 2024.

ESA has said it would like to be a major partner in the lunar plans. Jörg Feustel-Büechl, the agency’s director of human space flight, said he believed ESA should work with the US. ‘Europe must be an indispensable partner, a primary partner, not a secondary partner. By the middle of this year the EU should be clear about what we will do.’

But despite ESA’s enthusiasm, the Bush plan has not been universally welcomed by members of the US space industry. Upon closer examination of NASA’s published budget projections, space experts have concluded there will have to be major cuts to the agency’s current research.

Increased costs in shuttle operation due to the recommendations of the Columbia investigation, combined with the development of the CEV and the commitment to provide enough shuttle launches to complete the ISS by 2010, will leave NASA with a huge financial black hole, according to one space industry veteran.

‘In short, I think NASA is doomed. A $100bn (£55bn) lunar programme with $12bn (£6.5bn) in funding, a ruling to retire the existing manned vehicle, the shuttle, before the new one, the CEV, can possibly be ready, and these ‘reallocated’ funds will spell the death of earth science and aeronautics in the agency.’

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