Friday, April 02, 2010

Flexible Path to the Moon and the 2011 NASA Budget: An Option to Start Beyond LEO Missions

The 2011 NASA budget changes I've described so far simply focus some of the budget categories more on destinations along the Flexible Path to the Moon. This allows us send robotic missions to those destinations to prepare for astronauts. It allows us to do in-space demonstrations of technologies to make astronaut missions to those destinations more affordable and capable. It allows us to place assets like serviceable satellites beyond LEO, where later they will be incentives to develop beyond-LEO astronaut capabilities. Meanwhile, the commercial LEO transport and use of the ISS continue as described in the 2011 budget.

Although this allows us to set the stage for later beyond-LEO missions as intended in step 1 of the Flexible Path to the Moon, it doesn't start us on steps 2 or 3. It leaves us without specific plans for astronaut missions to Lunar orbit, Earth-Moon Lagrange points, GEO, and the lunar surface. This causes controversy with the current NASA plan, and the approach I've outlined is similar in this respect, even though these plans replace a program that wouldn't get astronauts beyond LEO for decades.

We need to wait for results of robotic precursors, technology development and demonstrations, commercial partnerships, and international partnerships to fully achieve exploration and development of cislunar space and the lunar surface. These results will allow us to make the right decisions to complete these steps affordably. For this reason, I'm not alarmed by the postponement of exploration missions in the current plan.

However, we don't need robotic precursors to implement basic first-generation "foot-in-the-door" transport of astronauts or cargo from LEO to cislunar space destinations. We have experience with this sort of technology from Apollo, ISS, Shuttle, and numerous satellites. We don't need technology demonstrations to implement basic hardware like sensors, satellite servicing modules, pre-positioned supplies, or infrastructure letting astronauts accomplish a first set of important objectives at these destinations. We have experience with this sort of technology from the ISS, Hubble servicing, remote sensing satellites, and other missions. Budget allowing, we could start to develop some basic systems to reach and use lunar orbit, GEO, and Earth-Moon Lagrange points in the near term, and gradually bring in additional capabilities as the budget, partnerships, and demonstrated technologies allow. Thus, the 2011 NASA budget could optionally be modified to enable a first set of beyond-LEO missions.

If a commercial approach is taken, acknowledging potential beyond-LEO markets like space tourism and satellite servicing, a small initial funding line comparable to the CCDEV commercial crew effort could start the process. When the transition to the new NASA approach is well under way (i.e. we have gotten over the "Constellation Transition" and "Shuttle Slip Contingency" humps in the budget), we will have funds available to begin to develop some initial operational beyond-LEO systems. If the budget isn't increased, this might come from a moderate (perhaps 10 or 20%) cut to some of the other new budget lines. The result would still be several times larger than the $500M COTS commercial cargo incentive.

A mutually advantageous form of international participation could enable additional beyond-LEO capabilities. There could be a mixture of NASA, commercial, and international contributions.

Later, after a set of enabling technologies is developed and demonstrated, the technology lines can be scaled back to a modest long-term level to allow larger-scale operations along the Flexible Path to the Moon.


Retro said...

Wow, now that is closer to a real space program. Add a few dates like manned return to the lunar surface by 2022 for lunar water recon verification and I might start to take notice. Add a commercial shuttle replacement with return to point of origin and pin-point landing requirements by 2015 and I really perk-up. Stretch out and add a couple more shuttle flights in 2013 and 2014 and I'm thinking by God this just might work.

Tom the Younger said...

The Webb Space Telescope (Hubble successor) is planned to be put in an Earth-Sun Lagrange point, see

A manned servicing mission to that might be good, though I doubt that the telescope is designed for servicing at all.

Ralph Buttigieg said...


Follow up to my last comment. BEO should be relatively simple to do from the remains of post Obama NASA. The next President can order Orion Lite to be upgraded into the full hard core version. The lifeboat will properly be going up on a EELV. Theres been HLLV designs for Atlas and Deltas for years. So that can be used for the launch vehicle.