NASA’s lunar plans

Contributed by
Dec 5, 2006
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On Monday, NASA went over its plans to return to the Moon. It was billed as an "announcement", but it didn't feel much like something on that scale. More of a, "hey, by the way, we're going to do this thing here."

Parts of the press conference were interesting, but to me not surprising. NASA has been clear that they want to put men on the Moon by 2020 for some time now, so the big questions are how and where.

"How" was revealed in part. NASA's already talked extensively about the rockets that will be used (the Ares I and V, which will be used to go to low Earth orbit and to the Moon, respectively), but they did reveal a plan for the lunar lander.

However, again this was not a surprise. It's similar to the Apollo module, as it goes down to the lunar surface in one piece, but the top half is the part that goes back up to orbit; this saves a lot of weight. The drawing of the lander they showed looked like it had an open structure, like a house without walls; that also saves weight. The astronauts, it seems to me, would be protected from radiation by the fuel tanks (I'd love to show you an image of it, but I cannot find one anywhere on NASA's website. More on this later). It's bigger than Apollo's module, and will be designed to ferry humans as well as cargo. The plan is to have it be operated remotely if necessary, which is cool.

"Where" was interesting: they said they want to go to the lunar south pole, specifically Shackleton crater. There are numerous reasons this is a good place to go: in some places, the rim of that crater is in sunlight 75-80% of the time. That makes energy generation easy! Solar panels will be a cinch. Also, ironically, there are spots nearby that are always in darkness. That's because the Sun is so low to the lunar horizon; a mountain sticks up high enough to almost always be in sunlight, but depressed areas like valleys or crater floors will always be dark. There might be interesting things in the dark, like frozen water. This is still highly debatable-- literally, scientists are arguing over the presence of water there. We'll know more in a year or two when Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter takes more data of the area.

I think the lunar south pole is an excellent place to build a colony (at the press conference, they used the words base and outpost, but colony is the word they should be using). It's a bit tougher to get there due to complicated orbital dynamics, but not that much harder given the payoff. So NASA is making the right choice. There is an excellent PDF paper about all this from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts which was published in 2000. I found it to be a fascinating read.

Still... money. Paying for this will be tough. It'll be expensive. At the press conference, Shana Dale, NASA's Deputy Administrator, was asked directly by a reporter how much this would cost. Her answer? No answer. She did not give an answer in dollars, but said that this will be a chance for international partnerships to foster cooperation amongst nations blah blah blah. I can hardly blame her; who wants to say this will cost billions of dollars?

Answer: I do. I want to tell people exactly how much this will cost, and exactly what we will get out of it. I want to tell Congress, I want to tell taxpayers, I want to tell everyone! I want them to know that Bush mandated this new push, but has not given NASA any extra money at all to fund it, and Congress needs to figure out where money is being wasted in government (cough cough everywhere cough) and find more money to invest in our future.

NASA has been very reticent to discuss this, but that fits in with their overall apparent reticence to discuss anything about going back to the Moon. How much have you heard? I read whatever I can, and there have been precious few details about this. That makes me wonder what the heck is going on. This is NASA's Next Big Thing, and they aren't talking about it very much. Sure, you can read the occasional press release, but there needs to be far, far more buzz (haha) about putting people back on the Moon. Like I said above, I couldn't find an image of the lunar lander anywhere on NASA's site (they have some older artwork, but nothing I could find of the current version displayed at the press conference). It might be there, but cripes. It should be easy to find. I shouldn't have to dig for it!

I think that returning to the Moon is a great effort, a noble deed, a fantastic and tremendously cool thing to do, but listening to NASA talk about it is like listening to an accountant go over your portfolio. I want to drift off to sleep, and cripes, we're talking about sending humans back to the Moon! They should have had, at the very least, an Apollo astronaut on the press conference panel gushing about this. Anyone showing energy and emotion would have been great. The panelists were clearly happy to be doing this, but there was a decided lack of gusto, of enthusiasm, of "can-do" of, well, fizz.

NASA needs fizz.

They really, really need to work on their public outreach. In the 1960s, it was easy: build it and they will come. Times have changed, and NASA desperately needs help with this.

Here are some other folks' opinions on the press conference as well: