Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: Adjusting the Robotic Precursor Mission Budget

NASA's 2011 budget proposal includes a strong line of HSF robotic precursor missions to follow the model of LRO and LCROSS. These precursor missions are intended to blaze a trail for astronauts at various potential HSF destinations like the lunar surface, NEOs, Mars moons, Lagrange points, and Mars. Unlike robotic science missions, these HSF precursor missions will concentrate on identifying hazards and resources of concern to astronauts. Collaboration with NASA Science and non-NASA missions, such has hosting instruments, can also take place.

The budget includes $3B over 5 years for these missions. Two classes of missions are planned: the traditional missions which are expected to cost less than $800M each (typically substantially less), and Scout missions that are expected to cost from $100M to $200M each. It doesn't take much math to realize that in order to do the many jobs required to chart a course for the Flexible Path to the Moon, such as resource assessment, various types of ISRU demonstrations, astronaut site selection, hazard assessment, astronaut site preparation, and others, we will need to concentrate most of these missions on the destinations in the Flexible Path to the Moon. The Moon itself needs to be the primary subject of this series of missions if we're to succeed on the Flexible Path to the Moon. It's worthwhile to spend some effort on later destinations like NEOs, Mars Moons, and Mars, but a "concentration of forces" is needed at the Moon. The same may eventually well be the case at more distant destinations as we begin to accomplish the goals of the Flexible Path to the Moon and turn our gaze to more distant destinations. Indeed, if NASA actually implements the Augustine Flexible Path to Mars as many expect, it should concentrate its precursor missions on the more achievable destinations along that path.

The 2011 NASA robotic precursor budget actually gives the Moon a lot of attention, considering that the Flexible Path to Mars seems to be in favor. The budget starts 2 precursor missions in 2011. One will probably be a lunar surface mission to assess resources and demonstrate telerobotics at the Moon. A second mission could be centered on lunar or asteroid ISRU or NEO/Mars moon landing, so there is a chance that the second mission could go to the Moon, too. Mission starts would continue in later years. The new line of robotic precursor "Scouts" seem to be perfect for small commercial missions like those planned by Google Lunar X PRIZE teams. The Moon would naturally be an appropriate destination for such teams.

Nevertheless, if the Flexible Path to the Moon is taken, an even greater concentration of lunar precursor missions would be needed than is suggested in the 2011 NASA budget. This is just a matter of shifting the distribution of mission destinations within the precursor budget. Even with this shift, the limited funding for precursor robotics and the significant exploration and development ambitions of the Flexible Path to the Moon demand that this line leverages as much as is possible those opportunities offered by commercial space, international partners, and other parts of NASA like Science missions and new technology demonstrations. It is really here in the robotic HSF precursor missions where the Flexible Path to the Moon succeeds or falls short.

1 comment:

QuantumG said...

If you don't say so yourself? I have a pet writeup too: