Some common sense from the Europeans:
“We need the courage of starting a new era,” Europe’s director of human spaceflight, Simonetta Di Pippo, told BBC News.
“The idea is to ascend to the space station the various elements of the mission, and then try to assemble the spacecraft at the ISS, and go from the orbit of the space station to the Moon. We need the courage of starting a new era.”
“What we are thinking about right now – but again we need more technical work to address this – [is] it should be a small spacecraft that goes around the Moon.”
…Learning how to assemble exploration vehicles at the ISS would also be part of this new vision.
If humans ever do go to asteroids or Mars, the scale of the infrastructure needed to complete a safe round trip could not possibly be launched on a single rocket from Earth. It will have to be sent up on multiple flights and joined together in orbit.
Gee, what a concept.
Doing this assembly at the ISS means it can be overseen by astronauts with ready access to tools if needed.
And if the crew assigned to man the deep-space mission travels up separately to the station, it would also mean all the elements for their long-duration flight could be launched without the complications of ultra-safe abort systems that complicate manned rockets.
The crew could instead ride to orbit in a simple, tried and tested rocket, such as a Soyuz, and then transfer across to their deep-space vehicle already waiting for them at the ISS.
The only problem with this is that it doesn’t address the issue of how to get back to the ISS orbit from deep space. As I said at Space Access in April, I view this as one of the fundamental problems of decoupling earth-LEO from pure space transportation. The solution will lie in either aerobraking, or cheap propellant, or some combination of the two.
But it’s nice to see people starting to think about how to make progress without waiting for a heavy lifter that will never arrive. It’s not the lack of heavy lift that has trapped us in LEO for decades. It’s the false perception that we need it.
[Update a while later]
A question in comments:
Would shifting the ISS orbit higher (now that it doesn’t need to be shuttle-reachable) be of any use here?
Not much, unless it’s a lot higher. L-1 or L-2 are much better portals to the rest of the solar system. Here’s a question — how big a launcher would it take for a direct inject of a capsule (Dragon or CST class) to L-1? The idea here would be to have a propellant depot in LEO that could deliver the propellant to L-1 by a slow ship, with a crew system to get people to/from L-1 quickly. Eventually, perhaps, the propellant could come from the moon. An alternative would be to depart to L-1 from the ISS, but not return to it from there, instead going directly back to earth. That way, you’d have a good staging area that was also relatively easy to get back to, and allow multiple expeditions without having to enter the atmosphere.