Using the NASA long-term, large-scale central planning model, human expeditions outside LEO have been considered prohibitively expensive. Constellation was cancelled when it became clear that the US did not have the capability to fund the $500 billion project. Currently, NASA cannot even take Americans to the ISS. American astronauts fly on Russian craft. In the present government shutdown, NASA has the highest % of employees furloughed as non-essential. The consensus was clear: the US government can’t do this now. However, perhaps the private aerospace community can step into the gap.
Meanwhile, space buffs demand manned flights and plans for colonies and resource recovery throughout the inner solar system. With severely limited resources, interest groups compete for limited missions to the Moon, Mars and asteroids and suggest the limited funds should be used on less expensive robotics missions. At a workshop at LPI on Oct 4, Golden Spike Company (GSC) asked a group of over 30 distinguished planetary scientists and aerospace engineers to present their views on the justification for manned missions. Can a human really do things that modern, advanced robotics can’t accomplish? Can repeat human lunar missions be completed safely at a reasonable cost? Last week, James Lovell joined the GSC board, convinced the dream is again possible. Workshop participants agreed. Manned spaceflight is not easy, but this can be done. Now, can it be sold?
While Mars may be the ultimate destination, the moon is the ideal testing location for low gravity (not zero-g) processes and equipment. Clive Neal and Bill McKinnon provided an overview of what we've already learned from Apollo landings and the questions still remaining. The moon has already provided a vast source of information on the early history of the solar system. As Apollo samples are studied with new technology, researchers continue to make discoveries. Data from old robotic missions and recent orbiters has opened up as many questions as it has answered. One of the most intriguing questions for geologists is the issue of water or OH on the moon. Three different orbital missions have noticed some sort of release of volatiles containing mercury and possible water. If there is any thought of lunar colonies, a geophysical study that more accurately pinpoints the location of the magnitude 5 moon quakes already observed will be critical. Nobody wants to set up facilities on top of the local equivalent of the San Andreas fault.
The consensus is that human and robotics missions can be carefully planned together to provide the maximum value for the cost. Robotics can do preliminary reconnaissance at proposed site, collect samples from distant locations and return them to a central point for pickup, deliver payload packages for later use by astronauts, and continue to monitor the area after humans have left. GSC’s own robotics landers can actually place a second lander at maximum walking distance from a manned landing location, allowing humans to cover more ground, stay significantly longer, return two payloads, and come back after a long EVA to the unmanned lander. Humans can deploy as much equipment in a few days as robotic landers can do in months. Robots have returned less than a kg of material from the moon, while a manned mission can easily return over 50 kg. Most importantly, a well-trained human can take advantage of everything he sees as he moves on the surface. Although current photographic coverage is much better than that used for Apollo, astronauts will still notice things that weren't obvious from the photos. The ability to investigate an anomaly in real time is one of the most valuable capacities humans bring to space.
For all the technological advantages to human lunar missions, perhaps the greatest gain will be psychological. Young people today often seem to lack a sense of hope and doubt the ability of humanity to deal with the big problems we face. Apollo was a magic time for the youth of the 1960s. That magic help the US take the lead in STEM which has given America the technology we enjoy today. The best reason to send humans back to the moon is the hope that every country in the world that participates will see the same jump in their local STEM capabilities. Perhaps children will again be able to dream of being a rocket scientist or walking on Mars.