ANALYSIS: NASA Manned lunar return is probably a better choice than asteroid capture say space experts – and they are probably right

by | May 23, 2013 | Science, Seradata News, SLS | 0 comments

The U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee received expert evidence as they discussed which destination man should make its first port of call on its way to the planets.  Currently NASA and the Obama Administration is promoting a plan to capture a small asteriod which would be brought back to the Earth/Moon system using an unmanned spacecraft.  Once there a manned mission would be sent to it to take samples. NASA has allocated $105 million to examine the technologies needed.   But detractors of this idea say that the Moon would be a much better interim choice for manned exploration.

Most of the experts presenting to the committee thought that the asteroid plan was a poor idea and promoted returning to the Moon instead on the grounds that it would be easier to achieve and would give astronauts experience of exploration while proving key technologies.

Critics of the asteroid plan included Doug Cooke, a spaceflight consultant who was formerly in charge of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.  He remains firmly in the “Moon-first” camp as does Steven Squyres, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy Cornell University.  Also opposed to asteroid plan was the Chairman of the committee, Republican respesentative Lamar Smith, who said in his prepared statement; “The Administration originally proposed a mission to an asteroid in deep space. A recent National Research Council report found little support for the proposal. Without a consensus for the original plan, NASA haphazardly created a new asteroid retrieval mission.”

One defender of the plan was Louis Friedman of the Planetary Society who co-wrote the Keck Institute for Space Studies Asteroid Retrieval Mission Study.  He noted that such a project would be able to test out new electric propulsion technologies for long range missions.

It is not just those wanting mankind to return to the Moon who do not like the asteroid capture idea. Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society and principal proponent of a “Mars First” strategy, has separately lashed the plan in a submission to Space being poor value for money and a distraction from the main Mars effort.

NASA concept for Altair landing craft for lunar exploration.  Courtesy: NASA

Comment by David Todd:  NASA’s original idea for a staged exploration strategy to Mars was to visit a passing “Near Earth” asteroid.  However, such asteroid targets are few and far between.  Worse they would undoubtedly be exploration time-limited.  Now it seems that if NASA will not go to the asteroid, NASA wants an asteroid to come to it – albeit with the help of a NASA unmanned spacecraft.

This asteroid recovery idea is a foolish and expensive plan which will just divert funds from a proper manned progamme.  Instead these funds should be directed as a limited manned lunar exploration programme – a project which is a much more achievable and which would achieve much more in the short term in terms of exploration and science and would give astronauts experience of exploration before living memory of lunar exploration disappears.

However, it has to be noted there are both financial and “mission creep” risks in going to the Moon as well.  Some will inevitably push for a permanent manned lunar base to be established, but the expense of constructing and especially servicing this will diminish the chance of a Mars landing.  Sadly, if Mars really is the priority, lunar hotels will also have to wait – even if they might one day be part-privately funded.

As it is, costs of maintaining the International Space Station and its eventual successor(s) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), even with the benefits of commerical crew lift capabilities, will be enough to cope with.   Thus for economic/cost reasons a manned moon base/lunar hotel will have to wait until fully reusable launch vehicles and landing craft are eventually developed (possibly involving fuelling bases at the lunar Lagrangian points).

Instead, while working on longer range interplanetary transport craft (possibly using electric propulsion).and landing craft for full Mars landing missions, NASA could quite easily undertake some Apollo-class limited lunar exploration flights as a simpler interim project.  In effect, this limited lunar exploration plan would be what Project Gemini was to Project Apollo of the 1960s: a limited but very successful operational test precursor to Apollo which successfully cleared key capabilities of orbital rendezvous and docking, as well as techiques for Extra-Vehicular Activity.

Much of the hardware for a such a new limited lunar project is close to fruition.  NASA is on the way to having a capable heavy lift launch vehicle in SLS,  along with its very promising and now part-ESA-financed* Orion manned spacecraft (*using monies owed to NASA).  All that is needed now is a suitable manned landing craft.  As such, it maybe just the right time to dust down the mothballed Project Constellation Altair design.

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