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Season 3, Episode 10: Beyond Apollo with Jake Bleacher

Season 3Episode 10Jul 18, 2019

It's been 50 years since humans walked on the moon. Now NASA is planning to return, this time to stay. What will future lunar missions look like? Why do we go back at all?

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Buzz Aldrin Collects Lunar Samples

Jim Green: It’s been 50 years since humans walked on the moon. Now NASA is planning to return, this time to stay. What will future lunar missions look like? Why do we go back at all? Hi, I’m Jim Green, Chief Scientist at NASA and THIS is Gravity Assist!

Jim Green:With me today is Dr. Jake Bleacher. Jake is a planetary geologist. He is the chief exploration scientist for NASA’s Human Exploration Division and he works here at NASA headquarters. His role is to be the science advocate for NASA technology and mission development that is intended to enable human exploration of the moon and then onto Mars and into deep space. Welcome Jake.

Jake Bleacher: Yeah. Thanks Jim for having me here. I’m really excited about the exploration and the future of NASA and happy to talk about it.

Jim Green: All right. Today I want to talk about NASA’s approach to getting humans down to the surface of the moon and doing some fantastic science. Let’s start from the beginning. This is the big 50th anniversary year of Apollo 11. What does the Apollo missions mean to you?

Jake Bleacher: I think the Apollo missions are essentially the backbone for much of the excitement that everyone that works at NASA feeds for exploring the moon and everywhere else in the solar system and deep space. As I travel around and talk about exploration of the moon in the future, I always enjoy hearing stories, stories about Apollo, how Apollo influenced the people that work at NASA today.

Jim Green: One of the reasons why I asked that question is you probably weren’t born at the time of the Apollo missions, but I sure was and I watched Apollo 11 and on and indeed it was just really tremendously exciting.

Jim Green: Now that the anniversary is here there’s going to be a whole new generation. What do you think they will get involved in and what do you think will excite them?

Jim Green and Jake Bleacher

Jake Bleacher: The great answer to that question is, I don’t know. I’m hoping that they’ll tell us. That’s the great thing about looking forward I not being constrained by our boxes. I didn’t see the Apollo landings but I’ve been heavily influenced by people like yourself, Jim, who did. I would say that Apollo still heavily influenced me. We’re going to go to a different location, but we certainly won’t be the first time that humans have been to the moon. We carry with our explorers all of the lessons that they learned from the Apollo missions and all of the missions after that that enable us to survive on the surface of the moon.

Jake Bleacher: I really see this as riding the shoulders of the pioneers who got there first and really being able to do some exciting new things based on all that new knowledge we have gained. We have samples from Apollo that we’re just now opening as we prepare to go back to the moon, so Apollo is still providing us with new data. It’s almost like it’s a whole new mission, like it’s Apollo 18 or something. We have brand new rocks that came from Apollo. To me that’s just mind dazzling and that’s an example of that. They didn’t open the rocks back then because they didn’t want to constrain the creativity of what people could do with those rocks today.

Jim Green: That’s right. 25% of the material that came back from Apollo was set aside for future analysis because we knew that as we started analyzing the rocks that we had access to, we’d find out new ideas and new techniques we’d want to use on the other samples and new laboratory equipment which has just absolutely exploded, allowing us to tease out the mineralogy and the individual atoms and what we call isotopes in them, and that gives us great insight. Indeed we’re opening some new samples and we’ve got a new set of tools to use to look at them. Now we’re making big plans to go to our moon and then onto Mars in our program. What are we doing next?

Jake Bleacher: The next thing we’re doing is called the Artemis program and that’s going to be delivering humans to the lunar surface as early as 2024. That goal was given to us and we’re striving to meet that goal right now. The Artemis program will include elements that will land humans on the surface as well as an orbiter that will be moving around the moon called the Gateway. We’ll have astronauts on the surface of the moon, we’ll have astronauts at the Gateway and we’re developing the systems and the rockets that will launch them from the air surface to get them to those locations.

Jim Green: That really sounds really exciting. What are the systems we’re building now that will take us to the moon and what are the plans in terms of their schedule?

Jake Bleacher: I work for support of the Artemis program, which again includes what we call the Human Landing System or HLS, and the Gateway. The Gateway is the orbiter moving around the moon and the Human Landing System will take the astronauts from the Gateway to the surface. The Human Landing System is composed of three different elements, so it’s not just one big craft but three. What will happen is humans will go from the Gateway into the Human Landing System. There’s an element that moves it to low lunar orbit so it’ll be going to an orbit that’s much closer to the lunar surface. Then the astronauts will be taken from low lunar orbit to the surface onboard two modules. There’s a descent module, a rocket that will land the spacecraft, then the astronauts can get out and do what they need to do. They get back into the Human Landing System and they’ll launch on the ascent element back up to the Gateway and then they can return to the earth after they’ve completed their tasks.

Jim Green:Yeah, that sounds fantastic and, of course, how they’re going to get there is in the Orion capsule being launched by the Space Launch System, what we call SLS. Between now and 2024, we’re planning on three Orion and SLS launches. What are they all about?

Jake Bleacher: That’s right. We want to first test the entire system and make sure that it works and is safe for the humans. We have a test launch 2020 that will carry the Orion spacecraft around the moon, it’s our first launch back to the moon with a human rated vehicle. If that checks out-

Jim Green: And that’s un-crewed.

Jake Bleacher: Un-crewed.

Jim Green: Yeah. Got it.

Jake Bleacher:That’s correct, it’s a test flight.

Jim Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Jake Bleacher:Then in 2022 we will fly the Orion again around the moon but this time with people on board. It will not dock with anything, it will just do a flight around the moon and that will lead us to 2024 as we put the elements in place that make up the Gateway so that we can do the full human landing in 2024 as our main goal.

Jim Green: When I think about that architecture, which is really neat, the very intriguing aspect of of the Gateway, and then in Orion will be four astronauts, two will stay at the Gateway and two will then go down to the surface. What are they going to be doing on the Gateway, those two astronauts?

Jake Bleacher: Yeah, that’s a great question. Those two astronauts will stay, just like during Apollo we had one astronaut stay in orbit. We’ll have two astronauts that stay in orbit on the Gateway around the moon and so that gives us opportunities to conduct some science at the Gateway. The unique thing about the Gateway is the orbit. The orbit can take them as far away as 70,000 kilometers away from the lunar surface, so they’re really in deep space. The Gateway is a platform where we can begin to conduct research about how humans survive in deep space, which is a key element for enabling humans going to Mars in the future. We haven’t quite decided exactly what they’ll be doing but we’re trying now, and part of my job now, is to help make sure that we design those systems so that they can conduct scientific research during their time on Gateway.

Jim Green:Yeah. That kind of scientific research, because in deep space we really haven’t had astronauts stay for significant periods of time, other than the Apollo ones. We’ll primarily center around the radiation environment and really get a good understanding of that, and that is what we call feed forwarding to Mars, the next kind of things that we need to know about deep space before we send humans to Mars.

Jim Green: This whole architecture is very different from Apollo. Can you give me a little contrast between the two?

Jake Bleacher: Yes. The Apollo mission carried three astronauts, and as I mentioned, one stays in orbit or one stayed in orbit and two went to the surface. Initially the Artemis program will have two astronauts to the surface, two remain in orbit, but we’re projecting forward to have the capability to deliver four humans to the surface. For each landing in the future we hope to be able to have for humans, a capability that could bring four humans to the surface. That gives us opportunities to do additional science.

Jake Bleacher: Leading to the 2024 landing, we’ll have the first woman and next man on the lunar surface. Those activities will be short duration missions, so they’ll be able to get out and conduct some surface activities, but eventually we want to lead towards longer stays on the surface and what we say as being a sustainable presence on the surface of the moon. These really are first steps, a small steps forward. As the Apollo mission landed in many different locations on the near side of the moon, the Artemis program is really designed to start developing sustainable presence and longevity of missions in the future.

Jim Green: Yeah. This concept of sustainability is really neat in the sense that we need a structure that we can continue to leverage and use, and the Gateway plays an important part of that.

Jim Green:What other elements of the sustainability are we talking about?

Jake Bleacher: To enable sustainability, we need to start having systems that will be able to support longer and longer stays. These are going to be more complex systems so we’re really going to need to be able to depend on our commercial partners to provide some hardware for us and working with international partners as we move forward into that sustainable phase. You can probably imagine it the same way you would imagine anything from a sci-fi. You can start thinking about vehicles that may carry people around, enable them to go longer distances. Another aspect to that is being able to search out for resources on the surface of the moon and begin to use those resources so we don’t have to carry everything with us. If you think about the expansion westward in the United States, you loaded everything you could on your wagon and you went.

Jim Green: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

Jake Bleacher:We’ll load everything we can on our wagon, but there’s probably going to be more that we want to have when we get there, so in addition to the human missions we’ll have a series of robotic missions that are exploring the surface of the moon, both at the pole and around other locations on the moon, trying to better understand the lunar system and how we can take advantage of it for that sustained survival for humankind.

Jim Green: Yeah. Talking about humans walking around on the moon, the targeted location is the south pole. That’s really fascinating. What do we think is going to be the greatest achievement of our astronauts getting to the south pole?

Jake Bleacher: The south pole is a location that we’ve never been, so simply landing at the south pole is exciting for that reason, it’s a whole new place. One thing I like to try to communicate to everybody is it’s probably going to look a good bit different than Apollo. If you think about Apollo missions and pictures, the sun was kind of overhead, there weren’t really long shadows. At the south pole, both the sun and the earth will not come up very high above the horizon so it’s almost like you’re in a state of permanent sunset or sunrise. Shadows will be really long and the environment will be something that we have to understand how to operate in.

Jake Bleacher: Those shadows are going to be unique because there may be some locations that are in shadow all of the time, and this presents us with unique conditions where a volatiles, water maybe, could be trapped in those shadows and they’re not burned away by the solar wind. There are a lot of unique aspects to the south pole, aspects that will both enable us to stay there sustainably but also provide tremendous new science understanding of the moon and the solar system in general.

Jim Green:That’s a really good thought in terms of thinking about standing on the moon in the south pole and having these long shadows. That’s kind of like, if I can use the Buzz’s words, magnificent desolence. It’s really eerie desolence that we’re going to be seeing. Those are going to be exciting new views.

Jim Green:How will Artemis help us move towards getting to Mars? What are some of the things that we’d be doing that we’re going to feed forward with?

Jake Bleacher:Yeah, that’s a great question. Moon is a destination that is exciting in its own right from scientific research and its unique location for us, but it’s also a place where we will learn how to survive and operate on Mars. Mars is a very long distance away from the earth compared to the moon. Whereas we can get to the moon in several days, it can take many months to get to Mars. We need to learn how to operate and have the crew depend on each other in an environment where they can’t talk to people back here on earth.

Jake Bleacher: That’s a different style of operating and so as we go to the moon we’ll be trying to learn how to operate in ways that will educate us for getting to Mars. We’ll be trying to learn about how humans sample and collect material on planetary surfaces so that we’re better prepared when we get to Mars. The moon is just a tremendous test bed for trying to understand how to explore other locations in the solar system.

Jim Green: Yeah. In fact, this is where this concept of sustainability comes in. When we think about humans in space and over almost 20 years now we’ve always had humans in space because they’ve been on space station. We can get back and forth pretty easy. Going to the moon is much harder, that’s many days’ delay sometimes, but developing the concepts of sustainability is really key because when we go to Mars, then we’ve got to rely much more on the resources there. In terms of being able to use resources, one of the concepts is get access to this water. What are we going to do with it when we get it?

Jake Bleacher: Yeah, that’s a great question. Water obviously is something that’s very important to our survival. Water, if we were able to clean it up enough, could just be a fundamental resource for human beings to use. You can also separate water into its elements, oxygen and hydrogen, that can start to serve as fuel for rockets that return us back to the Gateway or maybe just fuel for vehicles on the surface. It’s really expensive to carry water off the surface of the earth so if we can find it on the surface of the moon and Mars, that really saves us a lot of money and effort here.

Jake Bleacher: If you don’t have to carry that, like I said, you fill your wagon up. We’re not going to take a half-full wagon when we go anywhere because we figured out how to get water, but that means you can carry something else. Every little bit of resource that you can use on the surface of your destination frees up an ability to bring along something else.

Jim Green: When I think about the Apollo program and the sites that we went to, what’s going to happen to all that stuff on the moon in the Apollo era?

Jake Bleacher: The Apollo missions did leave a lot of material on the surface. When we launched back into orbit we left parts of the lander, there were vehicles we left behind, flags, instruments. Some of those instruments were still operated for several years after the humans left. But all of that hardware has been sitting there since that time so it has several decades of interacting with the space environment at the moon. If we were able to look at any of that hardware, we know exactly when it arrived and we can start to look at, for instance, how often has it been hit by little fragments of material from deep space. There’s a lot of science you can gain from that.

Jake Bleacher:We can also understand how those materials have weathered in that environment and that would be useful information to help us understand how we build our new systems in the future, which are the right materials to use to have out there in long time periods that would enable sustainability. It’s a big question and we want to understand that. Some simple ideas, we think that maybe the flag that was there may be bleached white now by interactions with the solar wind. We think some of those materials will record a good bit of useful information for us to help moving forward if we were able to gather some of that information.

Jim Green:Another thing too is as we build things and microbes get on the surfaces, it’s so hard to clean things off. There’s probably tons of microbes that are on this equipment that we left on the moon and so indeed, looking at those material and seeing if microbes have survived is kind of neat because it may inform us on how life may migrate from planet to planet to planet, which is one of the major theories called panspermia.

Jim Green: What I also want to talk a little bit about is the fact that there’s a lot of people that want to make the Apollo sites historic. When you think about it, we have a national park system, we have some beautiful areas we’re setting aside here on earth for everyone to enjoy. Maybe we ought to be making these Apollo sites historic. What do you think about that?

Jake Bleacher: In fact we have talked about that already and we do have a report out that identifies them as historic. The hardware that’s left there is truly historic. If you think hundreds of years into the future on the moon, they will be truly historic sites people may want to visit, so there is a certain amount of desire to preserve them. But just like anything we keep in a museum here on earth, you may have reasons that you would like to conduct research on those items. We would need to have a well-developed thought on what those research projects might be and I think that’s probably how we will handle the Apollo sites, is they are a historic site and we would like to preserve and protect them, but if there’s useful information to be gained by visiting them, we may have special conditions in which we can do that.

Jim Green: Yeah. We’ll have to sit on the edge of our seat and see what happens on that one.

Jim Green:Well Jake, I always ask my guests that come and talk on Gravity Assist, what was the motivator, what happened in their life that really propelled them forward, changed their direction to become the scientist they are today. Jake, what was your gravity assist?

Jake Bleacher: Yeah, that is a great question. Discussing career pathways is always interesting because when you’re on this end of the pathway it seems like a pretty clear path, but when you’re going forward on the pathway it can seem very crazy and winding and not clear at all. When I was a kid, I grew up in a farming town in Pennsylvania, my parents were actually first generation not farming. To me, NASA was a thing that probably some people worked for but I didn’t know who they were or how to get there. But I was always curious and I liked being outdoors. My grandparents, they liked to travel and they would always come back with stories about how different things looked out west. They’d go to Mexico or Canada and I was always dazzled by that.

Jake Bleacher: I remember my parents taking me out to look for shooting stars at night. I just was always curious about how things were different farther away from me because I had only been in the town I grew up in my whole life. I ended up in college, I got into geology because the labs were outside and I liked being outdoors. At the very end of my intro geology course my freshman year, I was taught by an emeritus professor, his name was Don Wise. He actually worked for Apollo. He was basically the science lead at headquarters when Apollo 11 touched down.

Jim Green: Yeah. Wow.

Jake Bleacher: He taught a course on impact crater mapping and crater counting. I realized, wow I could actually couple of my interests with what’s up there in the sky with my interest in what’s down here in the dirt.

Jake Bleacher: It kind of gave me a nudge, or the gravity assist if you will, in that direction. And then I just kept going. For me, there was never… I get into panels a lot where I talk to people about this topic and they’ll say, “Oh, I always wanted to work for NASA and here I am.” That wasn’t me. I had no clue, but I just kept taking advantage of the opportunities in front of me and I enjoyed the path. I didn’t even know this job existed until probably grad school. Just keep following the things that make you enjoy your life. For me, you just run into those little gravity assists. There weren’t any big ones, but there were a whole bunch of little ones.

Jim Green: That allowed you to find that yellow brick road, but what was critical is that you recognized you were on it and traveled it to your fabulous career out at Goddard Space Flight Center and now here at NASA headquarters, helping us put this program together.

Jim Green: Well Jake, thank you so very much. It was just a delight talking to you today.

Jake Bleacher: Yeah. Thanks a lot Jim. I’m really happy to talk about this topic. It’s exciting and I hope that everybody out there listening is as excited as you and I are about it.

Jim Green:Join me next time as we continue our exploration on the moon. I’m Jim Green and this is your Gravity Assist.

Producer: Hi Gravity Assist listeners, this is Katie Atkinson, sitting in this week for Liz Landau. I produce the NASA Explorers Apollo podcast, a show about our Moon and the people who explore it. To celebrate the big anniversary of Apollo 11, we’ve asked our listeners to send in their memories of the first Moon landing. Here’s what Franco from Geneva, Switzerland remembers:


Franco: I was 18 years old in July 1969. I remember perfectly the day. I had been following all the missions of Apollo, I was fascinated by this race to the Moon and to the space. So on that day, I was on holiday. I had just graduated from high school and was traveling to southern Italy with two friends and we were camping, and the landing on the Moon happened at 5:00 a.m. and we were in a small village in southern Italy– everything closed, and nobody was really aware of what was going to happen. Even my friends, they were not very keen watching this, but I woke them up and I said, “Absolutely, we need to find a TV and see what is happening.” So we went looking for a cafe. Eventually we found one, closed of course, but I started knocking at the door until the owner came and he opened and I convinced him to turn on the TV. “Sir, we absolutely need to watch it. Something extraordinary is happening.” So he did, eventually, and we watched this. The four of us, myself, the two friends, the owner of the cafe, and it was fascinating. Something that I will always remember. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to tell you about this.]

Producer: We hope you enjoyed that Apollo story, visit to listen to some more and learn how to share your story with NASA.

Lead Producer: Elizabeth Landau

Audio Engineer: Emanuel Cooper