NASA’s New Lunar Plans

An interesting article from Eric Berger. This stuck out to me:

Neither Bridenstine nor Pence said so explicitly, but these comments reflect their sense that NASA has become too bureaucratic, too tentative, too risk averse. During his town hall this week, Bridenstine had a telling response when asked why, by setting such an ambitious goal of a 2024 landing, was he not putting schedule over safety?

“I would not say it’s a return to schedule over safety, I would say it’s a return to schedule,” he said. “Safety is paramount for everybody at this agency, it always has been. But the number one mission is not safety. If it was, we would all just stay in the ready room and just watch CNN.”

I gave him a copy of my book after it came out, when he was a congressman. He later told me he’d read it.

[Update a while later]

This is the first that I’d heard Boeing was considering Starliner for cislunar missions. I thought they’d sized the TPS for entry from LEO. I wonder if that means they’d have to beef it up?

29 thoughts on “NASA’s New Lunar Plans”

    1. Yup!

      The CST-100 is designed for 10 flights so the ablator might already have enough margin for lunar re-entry.

        1. Hrm…. A NASA paper says only the backshell is to be reused 10 times, while the base ablator is a single-use item that gets replaced. The considered going with Avcoat like Apollo and Orion, but instead ended up using Boeing Lightweight Ablator (BLA patent PDF). The patents says its density is 0.32 g/cc and it ablates at 0.0762 mm/sec at 3,200 F.

          I’d have to dig through a bunch of Apollo re-entry papers to go much further, but that rate would be 4.6 mm/minute. Every cm worth of BLA over a flat 15 foot diameter circle should weigh 52 kg.

          Table 6 of another NASA paper on Orion’s heat shield shows the mass loss from ablation for LEO return is 229 lbs versus a mass loss for lunar return of 564 pounds, which is a difference of 335 pounds.

          So even though the initial configuration’s heat shield might not be up to the task, they wouldn’t have to alter the flight weight by very much to handle a lunar return.

        2. Hrm… A bigger issue is that Starliner has very little endurance, just 60 hours without external power, according to one source. Woodun’s comment below might be right in that Boeing knows NASA will pay them to add deep space capabilities later, but they’re also optimizing for the mission, and the current mission is ISS deliveries.

          So on top of thickening the heat shield, it would need a new service module for delta V, with a large solar array for power and almost certainly more stored oxygen. I’d assume they’d fly the longer missions with a smaller crew, freeing up internal space for the extra consumables. The Orion design also deals with radiation issues that the Dragon 2 and CST-100 didn’t content with, which may be an even bigger issue.

          1. The abort system of the Starliner would seem to be incompatible with a larger service module. Simplest solution might be to add an orbital module, tucked underneath the service module during launch, which the Starliner would dock with once in LEO.

            A cylindrical orbital module could have fore and aft docking ports; and water, oxygen and propellant tanks on the outside, perhaps enough for the orbital module to serve as a radiation shelter?

          2. Yes, it would seem incompatible. Elon’s propulsive landing idea allows a lot more design freedom on the bottom side because it moved the abort engine exhaust elsewhere. Protecting a ride-along upper stage/SM from an explosion from the existing abort engine configuration would surely add a lot of weight. Or perhaps they could ditch their existing service module and design a much bigger one with some much bigger abort engines, which is heading down the path of trying to abort a large portion of the launch stack.

            I don’t see a good path forward except maybe eating the cosine losses and moving their existing abort motors to the outside of a short CM/SM adapter section, or going back to a tractor system like Orion. In either case, they’d have to re-certify everything.

          3. I’ve just come up with a simpler solution to giving Starliner and Dragon 2, a larger service module. A low-boiloff persistent version of ICPS with extra restart capability.

            The ICPS could perform double duty, not only providing the TLI burn for a Dragon/Starliner, but also the other maneuvers needed to rendezvous with Gateway and return Dragon/Starliner to Earth.

            This scheme reminds me of the artwork of the original Lockheed-Martin lifting-body CEV proposed in 2004. Which displayed a large propulsion module of roughly spherical shape with twin RL-10 engines.

          4. Would the ICPS really have the total impulse for the mission, as opposed to the Exploration Upper Stage (4 RL10B) or earlier Earth Departure Stage (3 J-2X)?

            I calculated some rough numbers for total impulse on some cryogenic upper stages, since they all have comparable ISPs.

            ICPS 124 million N-sec
            EUS 587 million N-sec (depending on SLS weight limits)
            S-IVB 490 million N-sec

            Of course they all use ridiculously expensive engines which are of course thrown away with the stage, which I see as a long term problem with financial sustainability. The ICPS using one RL10B and the EUS uses four, and I think they’re about $25 million each. So the engine cost just for the EUS is more than the launch price of a Falcon Heavy.

            The Blue Origin BE-3U vacuum optimized engine has about six times the thrust of the RL10B, so it comes between the RL10 and the J-2, and I assume you can buy them through Amazon Prime, but maybe not.

          5. The European Service Module provides about 1,250 m/s delta-V to Orion, while the propellant loads of the Starliner and Dragon 2 provide about 300 m/s delta-V. Which means the Starliner and Dragon 2 need a bigger service module (or equivalent) that provided 850 m/s more delta-V.

            “Would the ICPS really have the total impulse for the mission, as opposed to the Exploration Upper Stage (4 RL10B) or earlier Earth Departure Stage (3 J-2X)?”

            ICPS does.

            I based my calculation on an ICPS of 30 tonnes, with a propellant load of 27 tonnes. The 13 tonne Starliner seems heavier than Dragon 2, so I used that mass for my calculations. Rendezvous and departure from the Gateway Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit is about 850 m/s delta-V, according to a NASA paper I read.

            So according to the rocket equation calculator, ICPS provides Starliner a total delta-V of 4,360 m/s. Which is 400 m/s more than enough.

            The thing is Starliner and Dragon 2 are lightweight midgets compared to Orion, which is why ICPS could do the service module job for them.

  1. “Safety is paramount for everybody at this agency, it always has been. But the number one mission is not safety. If it was, we would all just stay in the ready room and just watch CNN.”

    I think this is my favorite quote to date from Bridenstine.

    Now we see if it can actually start to reshape attitudes at NASA.

  2. I’ve met Bridenstine a few times, and am quite impressed with him. For someone so young, he’s quite accomplished, and he knows commercial space better than any prior Administrator (Lori Garver knows it as well or better, but she was Deputy).

    If I see him again any time soon, I’ll recommend the 1967 Robert Altman film Countdown. Based on the 1965 novel The Pilgrim Project by Hank Searls, it portrays a Hail Mary American moon shot in a desperate attempt to beat the Soviet Union (who was well ahead of us). It was derived from an actual proposal (one never taken seriously), one astronaut on a one-way trip to the moon, where he would hunker down until NASA could figure out a way to retrieve him.

    James Caan and Robert Duvall starred, and Altman did a pretty fair job for an early effort. What I remember about it (having seen it back then) were some of the rocket combinations being discussed. IIRC, they were looking at a Saturn IB with a Polaris missile on top, carrying a modified Gemini spacecraft carrying just one man (and no parachutes or heat shield). The Polaris first stage would do TLI, while the second stage would do most of the retro burn, with the Gemini service module doing the rest.

    If you want to get there fast, you have to think outside of the box….

    1. I can recommend this movie to those who dislike Altman’s idiosyncratic style. This one proves he could make a straightforward, non-ironic movie.

  3. Sure they could beef it up, for a price…

    SpaceX wants to do something later, so they build it into existing designs even though it is not required for what they are doing now. Boeing wants to do something later but knows it is something to service what NASA wants to do, so they wait to implement changes in order to take advantage of development funding round robins.

  4. You all miss the point of federal bureaucracies. People are policy. With the top managers in place now, all NASA will accomplish is to keep their desks and chairs. If the administration is serious, at least 10% of NASA management will need to be shown the door. Until an astronaut with orbital time is in charge of human spaceflight, and an engineer of stem background, not social engineering or accounting, backs them up, then in two years we will be back here again, with an ever-slipping SLS first-flight date, and ever-increasing budget proposals.

    1. I don’t disagree with you but here is where I disagree with you. What if the managers and workforce of NASA are generally on board with the shift in priorities and how to accomplish them?

      1. There is no way to read the minds of the rank and file employees of NASA. So we need to look at performance. Many have praised Lori Garver for her efforts, but she was one among many thousand. Most at NASA have been there for decades. These decades have seen a gradual erosion of capability, but little reduction in budget. We have now been captive to Russia for even the most basic of transportation needs since 2011. We might be on the cusp of a great space revolution in tech and capability, but this is not due to leadership at NASA. The feds are the roadblock to space, and calling anything they promote a “gateway” is an abomination of the term. Rand, I read your book, and I think it should not only be required reading for NASA employees, it should be in their employee handbook.

    2. The first one out the door needs to be Gerst. He’s run HEOMD since 2005 and done about as poor a job as it is probably possible to do. Replace him with someone like Kathy Lueders or someone from a NASA center that still exhibits respiration and a pulse, like Ames.

  5. The very idea that a director of NASA could say something like that was in the realm of preposterous fantasy until recently. VERY recently.

    Well done, and well done to Rand as well, because I’d bet money Safe is not an Option had something to do with this.

    As for SLS and its ever slipping launch date, I think we’re being much too harsh. If measured in geologic time, the SLS timeline isn’t all that bad, especially if it launches within the next few hundred millennia.

  6. The opening of NASA’s collective mind and Dennis Wingo’s detailed post regarding multiple launches to do a mission raises curiosity. When taking such a flexible view to pairing vehicles over multiple launches, are we really so limited in the outcome or how it happens?

    Orbital dynamics is where ideas go to die but if there is an on the line solution that uses 2 launches, why can’t we use more launches to cut out some uncertainty and provide larger operating margins? Since the cost of commercial launch is so much cheaper than SLS, it doesn’t make sense to say we would use SLS and a FH to do something that was planned to take multiple SLS launches but also ignore the possibility of spending as much money on an alternate path as the original.

    Opportunity cost analysis isn’t necessarily about doing more with less but about doing more with the same amount.

    Money is important but it also isn’t the only factor, especially when you know your potential customer was already committed to spending more to get less.

    I don’t know. It’s early on the tail end of a long weekend but it just seems like we go to extremes min/maxing but then focus on the wrong things.

    “You don’t have to live like a refugee.”
    – Tom Petty

    1. Well, by the time EM-2 flies NASA will have spent about $20 billion on SLS. The price of a Falcon Heavy launch at about $90 million. So if NASA had instead simply stuck that SLS money in a bank, they would now be in a position to buy 220 Falcon Heavy launches. Of course we still wouldn’t have a payload, or do we already have one?

      If we orbited 220 unmodified Apollo service modules, with their 4:1 mass ratio and an ISP of 319, and attached them all to the 450 tonne ISS, and then fired and discarded them one by one to make a 220 stage rocket, the delta V would be 6030 m/sec, enough to let the ISS make a direct descent to the lunar surface, barring whatever I’m ignoring about the landing part.

      But the Apollo service module is a poor fit to the LEO capability of the Falcon Heavy, so we add a slightly bigger fuel tank to each one to bring the mass ratio up to 5:1 and orbit two SM’s per launch.
      It would only require 140 of these uprated Apollo service modules and 70 Falcon Heavy launches to land the ISS on the moon. Is it easier to build a 140 stage rocket than a 220 stage rocket? Of course it is! It must be!

      If we can build each pressure fed Apollo service module for $25 million, they’ll add $50 million to the $90 million launch cost, so 70 launches would come to $9.8 billion. That’s pretty cheap, and given the $20 billion SLS cost, we could land the ISS on the moon twice! And that’s using the worst, least efficient, outrageously bad architecture that we can possibly devise. I mean, I’m doing translunar injection with 140 hypergolic Apollo service modules, and it can still get the heaviest orbital structure ever built all the way to the lunar surface, twice, and still come out cheaper than the SLS program.

      So somewhere between the SLS eating through $20 billion to send four guys looping around the moon, and using 140 Falcon Heavy launches to land the ISS on the moon twice, there has to be a technically and financially viable route to putting somebody’s boots on some piece of extraterrestrial soil somewhere, for less than a staggering amount of money.

    1. From the article:

      If the Trump administration winds up canceling the SLS, the agency may find it politically expedient to give Marshall, Michoud and Stennis something else to do to placate Shelby and other key legislators.

      “You’re definitely going to need to see government dollars flowing to the right locations in order to have the cancellation of SLS be successful, in that it doesn’t ruffle the wrong feathers within Congress,” Forczyk said.

      At the National Space Council meeting, Pence hinted that the Marshall Space Flight Center could be tasked with advancing the state of in-space propulsion, a field that has seen less commercial investment.

      The other day I had a different idea for keeping work at Michoud and other sites.

      Elon says that Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are going to be rendered obsolete by Starship/Super Heavy. I don’t think he should abandon his lead in a very good niche, but that’s me. But if he’s insistent on it, it would behoove NASA to make sure the US retains those vehicles as extremely useful and cost effective systems.

      So what if Elon licensed NASA to build the F9 and FH and gave them the tooling and equipment to produce them under a commercial non-compete agreement, perhaps one that also retains SpaceX management of ISS deliveries for a period of time? An arrangement with DoD could be part of the same package.

      NASA would get well-proven hardware, cheap launch costs, and vehicles with a lot of growth potential, such as by adding more boosters and cryogenic upper stages to FH, letting it exceed the capabilities the SLS would’ve had and at a vastly lower cost.

      With cheap in-house heavy lift capabilities, and the freeing of about $2 billion a year that was going to the SLS, NASA would have the money to upgrade or replace the ISS, get lunar landers built, fly more frequent manned missions, and launch more deep-space probes such as Europe Clipper. That should keep everyone pretty happy, from Stennis to Michoud to Houston to JPL. It might also keep ULA happy, with SpaceX reducing competition in satellite launch as they focus on Mars and their massive satellite constellations probably orbited by Super Heavy.

      SpaceX could let part of their experienced F9 and FH workforce shift over to NASA or operate as SpaceX contractors for NASA, while freeing up lots of floor space at their own facilities.

      I’m not sure if the idea has the remotest chance of consideration by anyone involved, but it might be a better fit between organizations and capabilities than what’s going on presently.

  7. While Bridenstine was still representative of Oklahoma he made a blog post on the value of the moon. It was taken down when he left his position as representative to become NASA administrator.

    I found the post via the Wayback machine and reposted it.

    It seems to me Bridenstine is influenced by Spudis’ arguments that lunar ice could give the entities that controlled it a substantial commercial and military advantage.

    Which I agree with, IF the lunar cold traps do indeed have the ice deposits Spudis thought they do. Spudis would say the elevated CPR from Chandrayaan 1’s radar indicates sheets of water ice at least two meters thick.

    I would point out to Spudis that LRO’s LEND data didn’t support his belief that thick ice sheets exist in the lunar cold traps. I would also point out the LCROSS team downgraded their hydrogen volatile estimates by a factor of 5.5. Which would mean about 1% water in the LCROSS ejecta.

    Spudis replied the rich water ice wasn’t a certainty. Which was why he and Lavoie advocated sending robotic prospector rovers and other robotic assets before the arrival of humans. See the Spudis and Lavoie lunar architecture.

    A very sensible architecture, in my opinion. Unfortunately I don’t see Bridenstine and Pence advocating an incremental, doable plan. Bridenstine canceled an early prospector rover to a lunar pole.

    This boots on the ground in four years reminds of Apollo. Will it lay the foundations for a permanent lunar presence? Or will it be another flags and footprints publicity stunt?

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