NASA Considering Year Long “Lunar Shakedown Cruise” As Advisory Council Questions Mars Plans

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There is a distinct difference between the rosy image of the future NASA is drawing daily with its “Journey to Mars” campaign and the  hard realities it must address when facing audiences somewhat more skeptical than the twitterverse. One of those is the NASA Advisory Council, an outside committee of experts which traces its origins back to 1915 and the formation of NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Today, the NAC meets quarterly to receive updates on NASA’s plans, and to provide guidance where needed.  According to a report by Marcia Smith at spacepolicyonline.com summarizing the most recent meeting which took place last week at the Johnson Space Center, a whole lot of guidance may be needed, and soon.

At issue is the disturbing lack of specifics in NASA’s “Journey to Mars” and the fact that the current approach, described as the “Evolvable Mars Campaign” will have little to show for itself when other campaigns, those of the presidential variety, result in a new administration and ultimately a review of America’s space ambitions.

From the story:

“All in all, NAC members seemed uneasy about NASA’s strategy for getting people to Mars and how it is communicating with the public and political stakeholders.  The latter is particularly important, as Young pointed out, with an election less than a year away.  “I think we are ill prepared for the debate the next administration will want,” he warned. “We are on a path that maximizes the probability of losing.  If someone asked me what’s the plan to get to Mars, I’d say there isn’t one.””

The current strategy is to promote a gradual evolution in human spaceflight from low Earth orbit, to Cis-Lunar space, which NASA describes as the “proving ground,” and then finally on to the vicinity of Mars. Note the word “vicinity,” as many proposals coming out of NASA in recent years have focused on orbiting habitats, or missions to Phobos or Deimos taking place well in advance of an actual Mars landing. Part is philosophical, as some elements advocating planetary protection appear to want to forestall a human landing as long as possible, (and one suspects in some cases forever.) and some is practical, owing to an utter lack of funds required to develop landers, ascent vehicles and surface habitats until after the Space Launch System reaches its final iteration some years from now.

That ambiguity regarding landing is also represented in NASA’s lunar ambitions, which focus on lunar orbit, rather than the Moon’s surface as the next logical step. Following that path, one of the more interesting presentations in the NAC meeting concerned NASA’s deliberations regarding a possible year long sortie in lunar orbit in 2029  as a sort of  “shakedown cruise” to prepare astronauts for the transit times to and from Mars which could come in the following decade.

Any such test, even one lasting more than a few weeks, will necessarily require a habitation module which does not currently exist. The most obvious possibility lies in a deeper space version of the highly versatile Multi-Purpose Logistics Module, or MPLM, which has served the Shuttle and ISS programs well in its various forms. On that note, ISS program director Sam Scimemi advised the committee that:

“NASA is doing trade studies on whether it is better to launch a single “monolithic” module intact or launch several smaller pieces that would be assembled in orbit.  SLS could launch a 40-50 metric ton (MT) monolithic module on a single launch, or smaller 10 MT pieces when it is being used to launch other payloads, he explained.”

SLS Derived Skylab II Credit: NASA

SLS Derived Skylab II
Credit: NASA

One possibility put forward in a NASA Future In Space Operations (FISO) presentation last year is a very large, four deck, vertical habitat adapted from an SLS upper stage hydrogen tank which would be launched under the payload shroud.

On the other hand, Orbital ATK also made a FISO presentation last year in which that company pitched the MPLM based Cygnus as the ideal basis for a deep space habitat. According to the document, a single stretched Cygnus linked to an Orion could support a crew of four for 60 days. Also in the mix, Bigelow Aerospace, which hopes to begin proving the advantages of inflatable space habitats with a 2016 launch of its BEAM inflatable module to ISS.

cislunarcygnus

 

Posted in: NASA, SLS / Orion

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3 Comments on "NASA Considering Year Long “Lunar Shakedown Cruise” As Advisory Council Questions Mars Plans"

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  1. PK Sink says:

    Great article. I can’t think of anything more exciting and useful in the near term than a hab in cislunar space, testing deep space tech and supporting commercial and international robotic activities on the Moon.

  2. NASA is not sending humans to the orbit of Mars in the 2030s until they finally get serious about deploying habitats at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points in the 2020s that can produce some significant level of simulated gravity.

    And its really not that hard to do!

    Marcel

  3. Robert G. Oler says:

    there is near zero political support for this.

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