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Outposts on the Moon, Footprints on Mars: NASA’s Future Exploration Plans

    By Beth Dickey

    Return to the moon - An artist’s concept of a lunar outpost and lunar rover. Astronauts are depicted outside habitat modules that provide space for the astronauts to live and work. Solar arrays power the outpost.Rick Gilbrech got hooked on NASA as a seven-year-old in the summer of 1969. “Before that, I wanted to be a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys,” he said. “Then my dad kept us up to watch Neil Armstrong put the first footprints on the moon, and I decided I was going to be an astronaut. That’s how the space program changed my life.” A heart murmur ended his dream of joining the astronaut corps, but it could not stop him from becoming a rocket scientist. After a 16-year NASA career that included three stints at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where engines for a new family of moon rockets are being tested, Gilbrech now leads NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. He typifies NASA people who are working to achieve the nation’s goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020. Project Apollo’s spectacular missions inspired inspired their dreams as kids and motivate their achievements as adults. These leaders are outfitting a new generation of lunar explorers with spaceships, landers, rovers, life support and all the other technological necessities for a long stay. “Our job is to set NASA on a path to build towns on the moon and put footprints on Mars,” said Gilbrech, the associate administrator for exploration.

    It was the night before Christmas in 1968 when the crew of Apollo 8 presented the first live broadcast from orbit around the moon. Seven-year-old Jeff Hanley sat transfixed by the television as three astronauts showed the first pictures of Earth from deep space and took turns reading from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. He knew then that he wanted to go to the moon, too. When his eyesight did not meet NASA’s astronaut minimum years later, Hanley opted for a career in mission control. He had been guiding orbiting spacecraft from the same historic control rooms where his predecessors kept watch over Apollo capsules and had risen to the post of chief flight director when agency leaders tapped him in 2005 to manage NASA’s Constellation Program. Hanley heads a nationwide team developing a new space transportation system that blends the best of heritage technology with the latest advancements in propulsion, avionics, aerospace materials and computer-aided design. “To me, the most gratifying thing is to see NASA draw from a talent base at all 10 of its field centers to get this done,” he said.

    Taking cues from a 2004 Bush administration directive and the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, NASA has begun the work to build the spacecraft, launch vehicles and space systems, and define the exploration strategy that will enable the establishment of a lunar outpost sometime in the next 20 years. NASA will honor its commitment to its partners and finish assembly of the International Space Station first, then retire the space shuttle by the end of 2010. A new space transportation system for humans will make its first flight – to the space station – by 2015 and first mission to the moon by 2020. Plans are taking shape for the flights from Earth, the lunar outpost and lunar surface operations. Orion, the vehicle that will carry the explorers, and Ares I, the rocket that will launch them, already are under contract. NASA will distinguish its 50th year by finalizing Orion’s design, conducting the first tests of Orion’s launch abort safety systems and Ares I’s rocket engine, and launching the first mission of the modern moon program. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite will launch atop a single Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., to map the surface and help further the search for possible water.

    Powering Constellation - A concept image, top, shows the Ares I crew launch vehicle, left, and Ares V cargo launch vehicle, key components of NASA’s Constellation Program to develop new U.S. spacecraft and related systems and technologies for exploration of the moon and other destinations. Ares I will carry the Orion crew exploration vehicle to space. Ares V will serve as the agency’s primary vehicle for delivery of cargo and hardware to space.Unlike the Cold War that prompted NASA’s formation in the late 1950s, the chief catalyst for this 21st century activity was the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Accident investigators concluded NASA needed a new goal, and the president and Congress embraced the recommendation. What is different about the new moon mission? NASA is developing the infrastructure to return to the moon for longer periods of time and conduct sustained research missions. NASA is working with its industry partners, the commercial space sector and potential exploration partners from the global community to incorporate the solar system into Earth’s economic sphere. In the new space economy, said NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, “every aspect of human knowledge will be tested and advanced: physics, chemistry, biology, and their practical applications in engineering, medicine, materials science, computer science, robotics, artificial intelligence, power and many other fields – and we haven’t even mentioned rocket science. This is a legacy the crew of Columbia would be proud to know we had carried forward.”

    The order is tall: develop a program that can endure across multiple political administrations and be carried out without major increases in NASA’s annual budget, which is proposed in FY 2009 for $17.6 billion. NASA must accomplish the exploration mission amid competing national priorities under a tight budget and in a world without the political imperative that propelled Project Apollo.

    Evolutionary Thinking

    Countdown to tomorrow - Work on the Constellation Program already is under way, including testing at the Stennis Space Center’s A-1 Test Stand of the J-2X engine, above, that will power upper stages of the Ares I and Ares V rockets.For NASA, the first major step in implementing its new exploration challenge was to design America’s next generation of spacecraft, launch vehicles and supporting systems, then to award contracts for their delivery. After extensively studying many possible configurations, a team led by some of NASA’s top scientists and engineers created an exploration systems architecture – a strategy for moving forward on the development of transportation systems and surface infrastructure. This comprehensive plan will help NASA return to the moon with the highest margins of safety, at the soonest possible time, and within the budget the agency plans to have for the foreseeable future.

    The spacecraft and systems NASA will use to establish a foothold in our corner of the cosmos will build upon the foundation of proven designs and technologies used in the Apollo and space shuttle programs, while having far greater capacity and capability. To get crew and cargo spacecraft into orbit and on their way to places where astronauts can explore extensively, NASA is building new versions of such familiar space shuttle systems as the external tank and solid rocket boosters. The agency considered every conceivable design for the spacecraft that will take astronaut explorers into lunar orbit, then to the lunar surface. They concluded the physics have not changed, and the engineers who designed the Apollo command and lunar modules were on target in their plans. Accordingly, NASA will incorporate the basic designs of the Apollo spacecraft in its next exploration steps – augmenting the designs with modern technology and the ability to incorporate even newer innovations over time.

    Despite inevitable ties to the days of old, NASA’s moon mission is all new. This time, explorers are going back to stay. They will build an outpost in which they will live off the land like true pioneers and work for months at a time, gathering experience to guide a future generation on the way to Mars. “This isn’t the space shuttle, and it’s not Apollo. It’s the next step in sending more people farther into space, with more capability than ever before. It’s a greater challenge,” said Doug Cooke – yet another in NASA’s ranks who aimed for a seat on top of the rocket but instead found satisfaction on the ground. He has been on the ground floor of every one of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts since Apollo, with almost 35 years of experience and crucial development and management roles in the space shuttle, space station and exploration programs. Said Cooke, now Gilbrech’s deputy associate administrator: “In building the new systems we’ll incorporate measures that have improved their reliability and safety, and we’ll be able to keep thousands of people productively employed supporting lunar development, testing and future operations as NASA winds down the space shuttle program.”

    For missions to the moon, NASA will use a pair of rockets, Ares I for crew and Ares V for cargo. Ares V will deliver to low Earth orbit the Earth departure stage and the lunar module that will carry explorers down to the surface. Orion, to be launched atop Ares I, will dock with the lunar module in Earth orbit, and the Earth departure stage, named Altair, will propel both on their journey to the moon. Once in lunar orbit, all four astronauts will use the lunar landing craft to travel to the surface, while the Orion spacecraft stays in lunar orbit. When the astronauts finish their work on the moon, they will return to the orbiting Orion vehicle using a lunar ascent module. The crew will use the service module main engine to break out of lunar orbit and head back to Earth.

    Ares I and Ares V – their Roman numerals pay homage to the Saturn I and Saturn V rockets of Apollo – employ variants of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank for liftoff thrust. The Orion crew exploration vehicle resembles the cone-shaped capsules that carried humans to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Some things will look like Apollo on the outside but on the inside will be very new, very modern,” Hanley said.

    There will be many improvements to NASA’s new spacecraft. Among them are:

    • Increasing the number of crew members who can land on the moon from two to four.
    • Adding the ability to land and conduct exploration activities anywhere on the moon, including on the far side and in the polar regions; the south pole may contain large amounts of water ice and other resources the astronauts could use to live off the land.
    • Creating technologies that will make these spacecraft considerably safer, more reliable and able to do more things than the Apollo spacecraft.

    NASA chose to borrow and build on existing technology to ensure the safety and reliability of the vehicles and the sustainability and affordability of the exploration mission. “We are taking very evolutionary steps. We’re not reaching too far beyond our technology,” said Gilbrech.

    NASA has begun a tremendous amount of work since it finished the Exploration Systems Architecture Study in 2005. By December 2007, it had awarded contracts for design, development, test and evaluation of Orion and all the major parts of Orion’s booster, Ares I. Orion and Ares components, such as landing systems and thermal protection materials, are undergoing tests in vacuum chambers and wind tunnels and on proving grounds across the country. The tests will lead to refined designs that will improve the spacecrafts’ performance. January 2008 marked the start of tests on the powerpack, or fuel pumps, of the J-2X engine that will help power Ares I into orbit. Fall 2008 will see the first in a series of tests of Orion’s launch abort system. The launch site for those tests is under construction at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The first flight test of Ares I, called Ares I-X, with a dummy upper stage and dummy crew module, is scheduled for mid-2009 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Ares I-X will use a four-segment space shuttle solid rocket booster as its first stage.

    Once construction of the International Space Station is complete and the space shuttle is retired in 2010, funds will be freed up in NASA’s budget obligations to allow the agency to rev up development of the bigger systems – the Ares V cargo rocket, a lunar lander the size of a two-story house, and the surface systems that will be placed on the moon. “NASA’s got a finite amount of money, so we’re going as we can pay,” said Hanley. “It’s a long-range strategy, a generational program. A challenge.”

    Building a Home

    Seventh crew - The seventh crew to explore the moon will arrive on the lunar surface by 2020.Just like the spacecraft that will take astronauts back to the moon, NASA’s blueprints for an outpost there are shaping up. The agency’s Lunar Architecture Team has been hard at work looking at concepts for habitation, rovers and spacesuits.

    NASA will return astronauts to the moon by 2020 using the Ares and Orion spacecraft already under development. Astronauts will set up a lunar outpost – possibly near a south pole site called Shackleton Crater – where they will conduct scientific research as well as test technologies and techniques for possible exploration of Mars and other destinations. The lunar outpost is similar in concept to the research outposts on Antarctica, where scientists go for months at a time to study. Even though Shackleton Crater entices NASA scientists and engineers, they do not want to limit their options. To provide for maximum flexibility, NASA is designing hardware that would work at any number of sites on the moon. Data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, the moon-mapping mission set to launch by the end of 2008, might suggest that another lunar site would be best suited for the outpost. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will develop a high-resolution, three-dimensional, global map of the moon and assess the natural resources and environment in the moon’s polar regions. With a spectacular collision into a deep, dark, permanently shadowed crater, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite will look for water ice on the moon.

    Astronauts on the moon will need someplace to live. NASA had been looking at having future moonwalkers bring smaller elements to the moon and assemble them on site. But the Lunar Architecture Team found that sending larger modules ahead of time on a cargo lander would help the outpost get up and running more quickly. The team also is discussing the possibility of a mobile habitat module that would allow one part of the outpost to relocate to other lunar destinations as mission needs dictate.

    NASA also is considering small, pressurized rovers that could be key to productive operations on the moon’s surface. Engineers envision rovers that would travel in pairs – two astronauts in each rover – and could be driven nearly 125 miles away from the outpost to conduct science or other activities. If one rover had mechanical problems, the astronauts could ride home in the other. Astronauts inside the rovers would not need to wear spacesuits because the pressurized rovers would be designed to protect crew members in a shirt-sleeve environment similar to the protection offered aboard the International Space Station. Spacesuits would be attached to the exterior of the rover. NASA’s lunar architects are calling them “step in” spacesuits because astronauts could crawl directly from the rovers into the suits to begin a moonwalk. NASA is looking to industry for proposals for a next-generation spacesuit. The agency hopes to have a contractor ready to begin work by mid-2008.

    One of the lucky few who has actually made it to space directs research and technology work for the exploration efforts. “One of the keys to our successful and sustainable program is to reduce risk and cost and increase capabilities through our technology program, and we’ve had some great firsts in this regard,” said Carl Walz, a veteran of four shuttle flights and a record-setting stint aboard the International Space Station.

    Walz oversees research and technology development for the exploration mission, including studies aimed at developing and validating novel technologies that will serve to reduce the medical risks associated with living and working space. NASA continues to leverage the microgravity environment of the International Space Station to conduct life and microgravity science research and demonstrate countermeasures to maintain human health and performance.

    The list of NASA’s technological accomplishments for exploration includes:

    • Extraction of oxygen in small amounts from simulated lunar soil.
    • Two concept vehicles that can haul equipment or drill for subsurface ice on the moon, test-driven in Earth environments that simulate the moon.
    • An inflatable habitat, delivered to Antarctica to gather data for developing lunar habitats.
    • A radiation design tool, produced to help Orion’s designers improve radiation shielding in the spacecraft.
    • Advanced guidance sensors for remotely controlled or autonomous rendezvous and docking of spacecraft, demonstrated in space.
    • Throttling for a lunar lander engine, demonstrated on the ground.

    NASA is busy communicating the work of the Lunar Architecture Team to potential partners – the aerospace community, industry and international space agencies – to get valuable feedback that will help NASA further refine plans for the moon outpost. The agency’s goal is to have finalized plans by 2012 to get “boots on the moon” by 2020.

    Switching Gears

    Desert testing ground - NASA managers Frank Delgado and Joe Kosmo of Johnson Space Center discuss experiment operations for future lunar exploration as technicians prepare a rover and two suited subjects for a test during NASA’s Desert RATS (Research and Technology Studies) activity in Arizona in September 2005.NASA is striving to ensure a seamless transition from the space shuttle era to the next generation of human exploration. The Constellation Program’s efforts to leverage and update heritage technologies, use and upgrade existing facilities and equipment, and retain its greatest resource – its people – are key. The transition involves roughly 17,000 civil servant and contractor employees, more than 1,500 suppliers, more than 650 facilities and about a million types of hardware. Among the facilities and hardware already transitioned are Firing Room 1 in the Launch Control Center, the Operations and Checkout Building and one of the space shuttle’s mobile launch platforms at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and the A-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss.

    NASA has some of the country’s most highly-skilled, motivated employees – civil service and contract workers who are committed to space exploration and America’s leadership in space. Guiding the unique workforce through the transition is the single largest management challenge facing the agency.

    At NASA’s disposal are a host of human resource tools, such as:

    • Sharing workers among multiple programs.
    • Mapping workforce skills from current to future programs to identify pathways to the Constellation Program.
    • Timing contract awards to balance the workforce needs of both the space shuttle and Constellation programs.
    • Strengthening ties with commercial space companies to ensure the full spectrum of the U.S. aerospace workforce is robust.

    Leading the transition for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate is John Olson, who – like his colleagues Gilbrech, Hanley and Cooke – lives the astronaut’s life vicariously through the new moon mission. Olson’s guiding principles for the transition are safety, efficiency and economy, accompanied by a big dose of compassion. “We’re striving to provide open and honest information in a timely manner so supervisors and individual workers can plan their futures,” he said.

    To Olson, the shuttle-to-Constellation transition is a “once in a generation” opportunity as a catalyst for positive change. “Transition is about evolving our people, our property and our processes as we reinvigorate and reinvent NASA for leadership and robust cooperation in space exploration in the next 50 years,” he said.

    Narrowing the Gap

    Future rover - An artist’s concept of a rover to carry astronauts to various destinations on the moon. In this concept, the astronauts can drive the rover while standing in their spacesuits or enter the pressurized capsule on the rover and navigate in the room temperature environment inside.The space shuttle will fly its last mission in 2010. The first flights of Orion and Ares might not take place until 2015. NASA is working to minimize the anticipated gap in U.S. human access to space through an unprecedented investment in commercial space transportation services.

    The agency is investing about $500 million with industry partners to help fund the development of reliable, cost-effective access to low Earth orbit. NASA is using its Space Act authority to facilitate the demonstration of vehicles, systems and operations needed to support the International Space Station. The demonstrations will begin in 2009 and, ultimately, will include safe disposal or return of a spacecraft that successfully docks at the International Space Station and delivers cargo. Once the needed capabilities are demonstrated, NASA hopes to become one of many customers for a new, out-of-this-world delivery service.

    This venture, the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Project, also known as COTS, marks a break with tradition. It is the first opportunity NASA has taken to engage entrepreneurs in a way that allows the agency to satisfy its needs and let commercial industry gain a foothold, and it could have profound impacts on how NASA does business. Usually, the agency issues detailed requirements and specifications for its flight hardware and it takes ownership of any vehicles and associated infrastructure that a contractor produces. For COTS, NASA specified only high-level goals and objectives and left its industry partners responsible for decisions about design, development, certification and operation of the transportation system. The agency is paying its industry partners only if they succeed. Payments are incremental and based on progress against a schedule of performance milestones tailored to each partner. Because NASA had a limited amount of money to invest, it encouraged the partners to obtain private financing for their projects and left them free to market the new space transportation services to others. NASA expects to use this model more and more over time as the exploration program unfolds, potentially extending it to the provision of power, communications and habitation facilities by commercial entities.

    NASA expects that purchasing commercial space transportation services for resupplying the International Space Station will be more economical than developing government systems of comparable capability. This could free up additional resources for lunar missions and other activities beyond low Earth orbit. Another important benefit of the anticipated cost savings is the opening of new markets for an emerging industry. Cost-effective space access could lead to new markets for biotechnology, microgravity research, manufacturing and tourism.

    Global Teaming

    Martian chronicles - In this artist’s concept, two astronauts have worked hard to extract an intact core sample from the Martian surface. As they examine the sample, they are in constant radio communication with their outpost to discuss the status of the sample with their other crewmembers and scientists on Earth. To their side stands their drill and unpressurized rover ready to extract another sample or drive them to their next destination.Although this 21st century exploration program will rely on NASA’s leadership, it will involve extensive cooperation with many nations and engage the entrepreneurial energies of the private sector. “We don’t see this as a competition. We’ve been to the moon,” said Rick Gilbrech, whose personal goal is to make sure NASA keeps the moon in mind for everything it does. “We want to go back there and stay for the long haul.”

    NASA and 13 space agencies from around the world began engaging in global exploration strategy discussions in 2006. It all started with two questions: “Why should we return to the moon?” and “What do we hope to accomplish through lunar exploration?” NASA posed the question to more than 1,000 individuals from around the world. Scientists, engineers, commercial entrepreneurs, space advocates and the general public all provided answers.

    From their responses came six exploration themes and a strategy that explains why people around the world believe we should explore space, how space can benefit life on Earth, and how it can play a crucial role in our exploration of the solar system:

    • Human civilization – extend human presence to the moon to enable eventual settlement.
    • Scientific knowledge – pursue scientific activities that address fundamental questions about the history of Earth, the solar system and the universe – and about our place in them.
    • Exploration preparation – test technologies, systems, flight operations and exploration techniques to reduce the risks and increase the productivity of future missions to Mars and beyond.
    • Global partnerships – provide a challenging, shared and peaceful activity that unites nations in pursuit of common objectives.
    • Economic expansion – expand Earth’s economic sphere and conduct lunar activities with benefits to life on the home planet.
    • Public engagement – use a vibrant space exploration program to engage the public, encourage students and help develop the high-tech workforce that will be required to address the challenges of tomorrow.

    Suggestions about what to do on the moon were plentiful. NASA used them to compile a database of almost 200 lunar exploration objectives. The objectives are meant to capture the entire set of activities that anyone involved in lunar exploration may want to pursue. These activities could be carried out by NASA, another space agency, a private company, a university, or anyone else who invests in space exploration.

    In May 2007, the space agencies released the latest product of their discussions – a document called “The Global Exploration Strategy: The Framework for Coordination.” It reflects a shared vision of the moon as a key part of future space exploration. The framework document, as it is known, sets the stage for the next step: establishment of a voluntary, non-binding forum in which space agencies can exchange information on their respective space exploration plans. This mechanism will play a key role in helping participating agencies identify gaps, overlaps and synergies in their space exploration plans.

    The framework document is an important step in an evolving process toward a global, strategic, coordinated and comprehensive approach to space exploration. The framework document does not create commitments on behalf of any of the participants, including NASA, nor does it necessarily reflect formal policy of individual participating agencies. NASA anticipates that certain topics in the framework document will spark separate bilateral and multilateral discussions and, potentially, cooperative agreements.

    A great partnership of nations and industry will be needed to develop crucial infrastructure such as lunar habitats, power stations, scientific laboratories and facilities, radio and optical telescopes, human and robotic surface rovers, autonomous logistics and resupply vehicles, communication and navigation systems, on-site resource utilization equipment, and long-duration life support systems. NASA envisions international crews on the moon, working together on research stations of international design and construction, possibly in much the same fashion as occurs in Antarctica today. Quite likely, these efforts will be aided by commercial providers offering service for a fee; with the right incentives, this can be made to happen sooner rather than later. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has expressed his preference for commercial offerings rather than the development of government-only systems whenever possible. As the multiple themes emerging from the global exploration strategy discussions revealed, to follow in the footsteps of the first lunar explorers means different things to different people.

    To Gilbrech, it is all about maintaining America’s global leadership in the space arena and maintaining a strategic capability for the nation. “Most people don’t grasp that only six-tenths of a penny of every tax dollar is what we’re spending on the space program,” he said. “The public should be aware that human exploration of the moon is enabling a lot of technology, a lot of science, a lot of advancement.”

    To Jeff Hanley, it is all about Mars. “Since the days of Project Mercury and Project Gemini we’ve been building our capability incrementally. The International Space Station is our Mercury. The lunar outpost is our Gemini,” he observes. “And of course, Mars is the ultimate Apollo for this generation. It’s the ultimate point of this whole litany of things that we’ve laid out in front of us to do. The challenge is how to do it on constrained budgets that Apollo didn’t have to deal with.”

    One thing most everyone agrees upon, said Cooke, “is that soon, space will no longer be a destination visited briefly and tentatively. Constellation’s systems will better Apollo and the shuttle by carrying larger and heavier cargoes and more people deeper into space for longer periods of time.” Through a committed effort, the United States again will go boldly beyond Earth orbit – this time with a vigorous, sustained and permanent objective of exploration for the benefit of humankind.