NASA unveils lunar strategy

By Phil Plait | December 3, 2006 7:39 pm

On Monday, December 4, NASA will unveil its architecture for the return to the Moon. I’m very curious about this, of course! I support going back to the Moon, but there are a lot of caveats in my mind — like not stepping on the throat of science to do it.

Along with this release they’ll discuss their global exploration strategy. I’ll be politic here and say that this could be made a lot clearer by NASA, so I hope this press conference will help.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, NASA, Politics, Science

Comments (13)

  1. ruidh

    When I see what Cassini, Mars Observer and the two Mars rovers can do, day in and day out, for far longer than their design lifetimes, I ask myself, why would we want to send such a flawed machine as a human up there. They have too much daily down time. They require bulky support systems and they weigh too damn much and require absurd amounts of propellant for all that support infrastructure.

  2. david

    Well robeots do not inspire people like actually people in space.

  3. Wouldn’t it be very very cheap to send 10 rovers to the moon? Or even 100?

    David: Robots in space!! That inspires me. Maybe we should fit them with cool-looking laser beams so they can zzzap things.

    Yes… I’m suggesting Robot Wars, the Lunar edition.

    (But that’s me, always ahead of my time.)

  4. Reuben

    I think the guy who runs the Mars Rover projects even said something like “It takes the rovers a month to do what a trained geologist can do in a day.”

    The rovers are awesome, but they only move a few hundred feet in a day, and can’t make a decision for themselves as to what might be something important to sample.

  5. Mark Martin

    It takes a Mars rover a month to do what a trained geologist could do in a day. On the other hand, it takes a Mars rover a month to do now what a trained geologist may not do for at least another decade, maybe more. Robots allow the planets to be explored NOW, not years from now, after I’m dead.

    Insisting that exploration is only interesting if done by “humans” is a shortsighted, perhaps even selfish, policy. What difference should it make to me whether it’s human bodies or robots walking the Moon or Mars? After all, I’m not one of those astronauts, am I? If not, then all I have in the long run are the data, which I can have by way of robots. And what are robots? They are packages of instruments. What will astronauts do when they get there? They’ll OPERATE THE INSTRUMENTS. It’s the instruments which do the real work, not the warm bodies in the spacesuits.

    The planets are, in fact, being explored by HUMANS. Those humans just don’t happen to be astronauts.

  6. Troy

    So long as it ends the shuttle it is fine by me. The capacity to fly people to space is a very good technology to have. If our entire launch arsenal is just for flying little robots around the solar system we’ve lost something. We might as well send them somewhere. The moon really has a lot of luna incognita (ha ha just thought of that one) and rather than mars a trip to a near earth asteroid would be very exciting and completely different destination. The issue is if we go slow track we can do it and it won’t break the bank.

  7. Stuart

    I think the issue about sending humans rather than robots revolves around your goals.

    If you just want “science”, i.e. scientific examination of geology, meteorology, etc, send the robots: They’re cheaper, get there faster and last longer (even if they are slower at the job once they get there.) Cheap and fast.

    BUT, if your eventual goal is to leave the planet (for colonisation or resource exploitation) you need to be sending humans up now, even if it’s “just” to the moon. You need all the experience/knowledge/research you can get, if you’re ever going to learn enough to make the longer trips to e.g. Mars, the asteroid belt, etc.

    Not that I’m advocating on policy over the other: There are a mass of conflicting pressures – financial, political and scientific – that would affect which, if any, approach will be preferred over the other.

  8. Kristopher

    Pushing robots over human exploration is very short-sighted, in my opinion.

    If human occupation of the solor system becomes permanent, the science will eventually and inevitably get done, regardless of funding.

    If human occupation of the solar system never happens, the science will only continue as long as the funding for robots continue.

  9. Gary Ansorge

    I’d like to leave you with a link to an article about a space lauch ring, unfortunately, I just saved the article to my computer w/o the link. It’s from the NewScientist.com news service dated 3 Oct, 2006. I did some very rough calculations that suggested it could be scaled up to a launch ring diameter of 567 km, to provide launch acceleration forces of about 3-Gravities, tolerable for humans and satellites. I wonder if that would still keep the launch price under $ 1000/kg.

    GAry 7

  10. Matt J

    Stepping on the throat of science? Huh? Elaboration, please! Will science be unable to communicate findings to the world if NASA steps on its throat? Will it not be able to eat delicious science-flakes for its breakfast of knowledge? How will NASA accomplish its devious goal of throat-stepping-on? These questions must be answered, Phil! But not if it means stepping on Science’s throat to do it ^_^.

  11. Human + Robot = HUBOT
    Robot + Human = ROMAN

    All roads lead to ROME, lunar or otherwise.

  12. Caledonian

    The Moon is one of the very few places in the Solar System where telepresence is a viable strategy. Properly-designed robots can do most of the things humans can, with humans controlling them, in realtime – and they’re a heck of a lot cheaper than humans, not to mention more expendable.

    This is of course assuming that the NASA talk is more than hot air.

  13. Irishman

    I watched the press conference. This is still very early in the planning stage for the Lunar landing. They discussed they just held a planning strategy session with NASA, academic community, industry, and current and potential international partners (including China!), where they looked at what goals and interests the different parties have. They have formulated the basic philosophy as building an outpost rather than individual sorties (like Apollo). They have specifically set the goal to allow for missions to any point on the moon – including polar and far side. In fact, the current plan is to look for polar locations, either north or south which will be determined after robotic surveys. The reasons are driven from engineering and operational concerns, but also scientific ones.

    1. Temperatures are more moderate at poles.
    2. Extended sunlight exposure allows use of solar power for an earlier start. Nuclear power sources could be developed later.
    3. Polar sites give access to craters in perpetual shadow, which may contain volatiles, including possibly water ice. These volatiles could be very useful.
    4. Scientifically, the poles have not been explored and may be significantly different than the areas already visited by Apollo.

    They emphasized that the key to buildup is to maximize the payload for weight ratio. Thus the ascent stage is projected to be as light as possible.

    The primary plan will be to build the outpost with each mission. They outlined key areas that NASA will lead to make their fundamental requirements, but also encourage other partners to contribute. The partnership agreements and even architecture has not been finalized and will be worked out this coming year.

    The missions will begin by assuming a 4 person crew per mission. The ultimate goal is to build the outpost large enough to begin a permanent presence similar to ISS, with rotating crews.

    This was very preliminary, with a lot left to be determined. Still, it is very exciting.

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