Last week China announced its intention to establish a base on the Moon within ten years. Exciting news for sure, conjuring up images of a lunar colony (dare I say Moonbase Alpha?), and certainly an idea set to warm the cockles of any sci-fi fan.
The timeline would have to be described as aggressive, though. Certainly, NASA’s Apollo program managed to land astronauts on the moon in that time-frame, but that was only a “simple” land-and-return mission. Still, China has demonstrated many times that it is willing to spend money to achieve big results, so they probably have as good a chance as any.
And now, barely a week later, we hear that under direction of the Great Cheeto, NASA plans to do the same, and they’re going to do it in five years. This timeline isn’t aggressive, it;s insane and quite possibly suicidal. There are three things necessary to envision a lunar mission, and here’s where things start to falter right-away.
First of all, you need a launcher capable of taking a large payload (by space standards) to the moon. In the Apollo days, this was the mighty Saturn V rocket. But now? The US doesn’t have anything currently capable of such a mission. NASA says it’s looking for partners in the industry, which basically means either the United Launch Agency (ULA), the SpaceX Dragon Heavy, or Boeing’s Space Launch System (SLS).
The ULA currently has the Boeing-built Delta IV Heavy rocket. This is probably NASA’s best option as it is NASA Launch Services Program (LSP) certified (but only for non-crewed launches). The SLS hasn’t carried out a single launch yet, and delays in the program presently put the first launches in 2020, at the earliest and, according to some observers, the program may even get scrapped entirely.
The only other possibility would be SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. This rocket has only launched once, and future launches are all listed as TBD. Plus, the system has no LSP certification (crewed or uncrewed). The Falcon Heavy program is also suffering from delays, and the company recently had to defer what would have been the rocket’s first commercial launch.
So, for any of these options to be viable, they would have to go through NASA LSP certification–not an easy or short program, although possible given the five-year timeline, if resources were thrown at it.
To get people to and from the moon, you need some form of capsule. Again, the US doesn’t have one. SpaceX has the Crew Dragon, and Boeing is developing the CST-100 Starliner, but neither is close to being ready. The Crew Dragon has a slight advantage because it’s based on the Dragon capsule used to deliver cargo to the ISS, but it isn’t LSP crew certified and recently suffered a setback when it exploded uring ground testing, seriously delaying its certification chances.
So the question here becomes “Is NASA going to rush testing both the launcher AND capsule?”
Now we get to the real kicker in all of this. Forgetting the issues of the launcher and capsule, the US has no lander–not even a design on the table. And here, even the commercial options fail. Neither SpaceX, Boeing, nor the ULA has a lander even on the drawing board. The only people who (maybe) do are the Chinese, and I’m pretty sure they won’t be rushing to help the US. It’s worth remembering that it takes somewhere around three years to design, certify, and build a new car–and all that has to do is sit on the ground. Building a craft capable of landing a crew safely on the moon is several orders of magnitude more difficult.
So far I’ve not discussed the idea of creating a station for the astronauts on the moon. Both Bigelow and Sierra Nevada Corporation have expandable units that might work, but again, none of these have been tested or validated for crew use, plus they’re more designed for operation in orbit rather than on the lunar surface. And if the plans don’t include setting up some kind of station, that would make the whole exercise pretty much a win for the Chinese efforts. Let’s face it, we don’t need another mission to the Moon just to leave dusty footprints.
There are no new funds for this project. NASA is already operating at a shoestring level compared to the Apollo era and in fact their funding peaked in 1966! The Apollo lander alone cost $11 billion–half the current estimated allocation for 2020. So, in order to do this, NASA would have to cut back on almost every other program it operates, and that would include the planned Lunar Orbital Gateway.
The Gateway is an international project with the goal of building a space station in lunar orbit. Building this would offer untold scientific opportunities and also act as a staging post for lunar operations, as well as missions to other planets such as Mars. I talked about this idea in a previous post discussing sustainable approaches to space travel. Essentially, any mission that works on the idea of traveling directly from Earth to another celestial body can only ever be a glorified publicity stunt.
The cost in terms of resources and hardships involved make such ventures so risky and unsustainable that they really aren’t worth contemplating. So, returning to the idea used on the Apollo program to rush through yet another badly thought-out lunar flag-waving exercise is not only a step backward, but also, given the potentially disastrous short timeline, precipitates an unconscionable risk.
Unfortunately, this is a continuation of the space pissing contest that has plagued NASA from its early days. First, they were in a competition with the Soviets. Now its China (or maybe Space ISIS…). All its major programs and missions were designed to push political goals with any scientific ones entirely secondary, and sustainability and safety have always been compromised. As a result, less viable missions have been pushed forward, while better ones that would have supported sustainable strategies have been notoriously underfunded or defunded entirely.
Certainly the certification process could be rushed, but I hope that won’t happen–that kind of approach almost inevitably costs lives. As my character Joe Ballen says “space is always dangerous, and a single mistake can easily kill you.” The big problem with all of these systems is that this is rocket science, and that isn’t easy.
I’d love to see the US pull this off. I’d be overjoyed to see humanity developing its first permanent off-world base. But with this timeline, such a program will only likely puts people in danger, and no one wants another tragedy in space. It will be interesting to see how this story develops.