NASA, other agencies, eye missions to moon and Mars

By Joe Southern

(Photo NASA)
Orion Program Deputy Manager Charlie Lundquist.

It has been 45 years since men last journeyed to the moon but recent announcements by different space agencies indicate that humans may soon again occupy – or at least orbit – the celestial orb.

Sugar Land’s own Loral O’Hara, who was announced last week as one of 12 members of NASA’s newest astronaut candidate class, could be one of the people to make that trip someday.

“Walking on the moon or orbiting the moon would be incredible,” she said.

It will take her two years to train to become an official NASA astronaut and in the meantime other humans will probably arrive long before she has the opportunity.

In February, the private space agency SpaceX announced that it has two unnamed, paying customers who want to fly around the moon. Many others are expected to follow. NASA, which has partnered with SpaceX and other private companies, plans to build a cislunar (between Earth and the moon) exploration platform that will ultimately enable humans to travel to Mars or other deep space destinations. Even China is eyeing the moon for both robotic and manned missions.

The big questions remain who will be the first to follow in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts and when will they go?

SpaceX and NASA are not saying who has made the “significant deposit” to ride SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, but assuming they pass health and fitness exams and complete rigorous training, they are scheduled to make the trip around the moon in late 2018.

“Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration,” SpaceX said in a press release.

Leaving low earth orbit will require a series of baby steps, much like it did in the 1960s when NASA was learning to put men into space in the Mercury program up to the moon-landing missions of the Apollo program.

“Later this year, as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, we will launch our Crew Dragon (Dragon Version 2) spacecraft to the International Space Station,” SpaceX announced. “This first demonstration mission will be in automatic mode, without people on board. A subsequent mission with crew is expected to fly in the second quarter of 2018.”

SpaceX is contracted to perform about four Dragon 2 missions to the space station a year, three carrying cargo and one carrying a crew.

“Once operational Crew Dragon missions are underway for NASA, SpaceX will launch the private mission on a journey to circumnavigate the moon and return to Earth,” SpaceX said. “Lift-off will be from Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39A near Cape Canaveral – the same launch pad used by the Apollo program for its lunar missions. This presents an opportunity for humans to return to deep space for the first time in 45 years and they will travel faster and further into the solar system than any before them.”

In the meantime, NASA is forging ahead with the Orion spacecraft, a four-person vehicle designed for deep space travel. According to Orion Program Deputy Manager Charlie Lundquist, the first unmanned test flight of Orion should take place in the fall of 2019.

“The first manned flight should take place in the 2021 timeframe,” he said.

Lundquist said everything is contingent upon government funding, but the current plan calls for the cislunar platform to be built in the 2020s followed by the first manned mission to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

Lundquist said having the platform around the moon puts it in the moon’s weaker gravity well and away from the Earth’s heavier gravity well, which means less energy is needed for a trip to Mars, one of its moons or even an asteroid.

“This gateway … is a steppingstone to Mars,” he said.

The Orion spacecraft is very different than the SpaceX Dragon or Blue Origin (which operates in West Texas). The private companies are focused on trips in low Earth orbit while Orion is designed to go farther.

“Orion, though it can take a crew to the International Space Station (ISS), that’s not the purpose of it … NASA has basically ceded low Earth orbit to private industry in space,” Lundquist said.

He compared taking Orion to the ISS like driving an 18-wheeler to the corner store. Often called “Apollo on steroids,” the Orion spacecraft is bigger and more sophisticated than its historic counterpart.

“When you look at the two spacecraft, wow, they do look the same,” Lundquist said. “That’s because the basics of physics haven’t changed in 50 years.”

Unlike the space shuttle, which was designed as a reusable ship that would land like an airplane, the Orion and Apollo crafts are one-use vehicles. Lundquist explained that Apollo was a three-man spaceship designed to take astronauts to the moon. Orion is a four-person ship designed to carry crew and cargo as far as Mars and back. Another difference is that Apollo, and its Mercury and Gemini predecessors, were strictly American programs and products of the space race with the former Soviet Union.

Orion utilizes programs from space agencies around the world, primarily the European Space Agency and Canada.

Lundquist said that the Apollo program had an end goal of sending people to the moon and back. Orion is a multi-purpose crew vehicle designed with an indefinite service date to keep taking humans to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Earth, China is aggressively progressing into space. Recently, at the Global Space Exploration Conference in Beijing, Yang Liwei, deputy director general of China Manned Space Agency, said his country is making “preliminary preparations for a manned lunar landing.”

Wu Yansheng, president of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, confirmed the manned lunar landing plan. Also, a statement from China last year said they were hoping to do this by 2036.

China is also planning to build its first permanent space station beginning next year called the Chinese Space Station. The nation currently has an experimental space facility called Tiangong-2 in orbit.

Aside from manned missions, China has an operational telescope on the moon. In 2018, it plans to land a probe on the far side of the moon, which has never been done before. China also wants to send a mission to return a lunar sample in November this year.

Clearly, although the moon has been mostly neglected for the past 45 years, it is about to become the hub of activity once again.

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