The New Space Race: How We Can Return to the Moon by 2024
The Trump administration’s call for putting people back on the moon in five years has drawn mixed reviews. Some experts are skeptical, given uncertainties about NASA’s budget and operational preparedness, while others favor shifting attention to Mars. But David Spencer, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and director of the Space Flight Projects Laboratory at Purdue, as well as a former NASA/JPL executive, supports the new goal. He describes why advancing human exploration of the moon is critical, how the new target can be met, and how Purdue is contributing.
Returning humans to the moon by 2024 is the right goal for our nation, and my take is that it’s achievable through public-private cooperation.
The next crewed lunar landing is an essential step toward creating a permanent human presence on the moon. It’s necessary for our country to maintain our global leadership in space exploration and to tap the moon’s resources.
Looking ahead, the moon is a pivotal element of growing the space-based economy, complementing our Earth economy. I’ve written on this premise recently. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and Blue Origin, has unveiled a similar vision. Bezos foresees a time when “Earth is zoned residential and light industry” while heavy industry and mining move to space, including the moon. Such experts as Apollo astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt have discussed using the moon’s resources for clean energy production, which could alleviate effects of climate change on our planet; that could be a goal for Purdue’s next 150 years.
But near term, what will it take to get people back to the moon in five years? The key is to form a collaborative launch pad, figuratively speaking, to leverage the capabilities of public and private players, including NASA, for-profit companies, and universities. Together, we can overcome technical challenges, spark innovation, and expand the space-based economy to include the moon.
While many important components of lunar exploration are being developed, roadblocks remain.
Funding issues may impede NASA’s efforts to go it alone. The agency’s budget has shrunk from 4 percent of the GDP in the Apollo era to .5 percent today. Negotiations for an increase are in progress, but questions are being raised about whether the federal government will invest enough to support its new Artemis initiative for returning humans to the moon.
From a technical standpoint, the Artemis program will require production of a heavy-lift launch system, a Gateway platform in lunar orbit that can serve as a staging area for crew and hardware, a crew transport vehicle, and lunar lander and ascent capability. Several of these elements are already in the works. NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, is behind schedule and over budget, with an initial test launch planned in late 2020. The Orion capsule conducted an uncrewed test flight in 2014, and is still being tested in preparation for operational flights carrying up to four astronauts. The initial elements of the Gateway are planned for launch in 2022, but full assembly of the orbiting waystation will take several years beyond that.
To meet the cost and schedule challenges, NASA plans to tap the capabilities of private industry. Companies that may provide lunar launch capability to support the Artemis program include Blue Origin; SpaceX, the brainchild of serial entrepreneur Elon Musk; and United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Lockheed Martin-Boeing joint venture that has notched more than 120 consecutive successful launches. While less capable than the SLS, commercial launch vehicles carry much lower price tags. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy costs $150 million and a ULA Delta IV Heavy costs $350 million, while the SLS will cost on the order of $2 billion per launch. NASA will likely draw upon industry to provide the lunar lander and ascent capability.
At Purdue, we are working on advancing access to space and developing the infrastructure necessary to grow the cislunar economy (between Earth and the moon). Beyond the next human lunar landing, we’re playing critical roles in preparing for sustainable human life on the moon and other extraterrestrial bodies. For example, we’re designing a robotic mission to use ground-penetrating radar to map locations and sizes of lunar lava tubes to assess their fitness as human shelters. In addition, NASA recently selected Purdue Engineering to lead the new multidisciplinary, multi-university Resilient ExtraTerrestrial Habitats institute, which will further space habitat design using resilient and autonomous systems. The Space Flight Projects Laboratory, which I direct, is developing space technologies in areas including planetary aerocapture, automated detection and correction of problems that occur during flight operations, and onboard activity planning without explicit commands from ground controllers.
With the “Giant Leap” of human habitation as an end goal, we’re bullish on a return to the moon as the next “small step” toward a sustained human presence beyond Earth, and extending humanity’s reach throughout the solar system.
by David Spencer, Associate Professor, School of Aeronautics and Astronautics; Director, Space Flight Projects Laboratory, Purdue University; and Project Manager for the Planetary Society’s LightSail 2, scheduled to launch in 2019 on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
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