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    Trump Administration targets 2024 for next moon mission

    Trump Administration targets 2024 for next moon mission

    NASA administrator discussed launching astronauts inside Orion, on a SpaceX rocket.

    After returning the priorities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration back to aeronautics and space, the Trump Administration is targeting 2024 as the year that the U.S. will launch its next mission to the moon.

    Vice President Mike Pence discussed the goal during a recent meeting of the National Space Council.

    “It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Mr. Pence said at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. On the stage nearby was a model of an Apollo landing module that first transported American astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago.

    …NASA’s current schedule sets 2023 for the first flight of Orion with astronauts aboard. A moon landing would not occur until 2028, almost a decade from now.

    At present, the space agency plans to first build a small outpost orbiting the moon, called Gateway. Astronauts would travel between the outpost and the lunar surface.

    “Ladies and gentleman, that is just not good enough,” Mr. Pence said of the timeline, laid out in budget documents weeks ago. “We are better than that.”

    NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine followed up with a discussion on how to expedite this, with a public-private partnership with SpaceX and its Falcon Heavy rocket.

    …Bridenstine then laid out one scenario that has huge implications, not for a 2020 launch, but one later on. Until now, it was thought that only NASA’s Space Launch System could directly inject the Orion spacecraft into a lunar orbit, which made it the preferred option for getting astronauts to the Moon for any potential landing by 2024. However, Bridenstine said there was another option: a Falcon Heavy rocket with an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage built by United Launch Alliance. “Talk about strange bedfellows,” he mused about the two rocket rivals.

    “It would require time [and] cost, and there is risk involved,” Bridenstine said. “But guess what—if we’re going to land boots on the Moon in 2024, we have time, and we have the ability to accept some risk and make some modifications. All of that is on the table. There is nothing sacred here that is off the table. And that is a potential capability that could help us land boots on the Moon in 2024.”

    With this comment, Bridenstine broke a political taboo. For the first time, really, a senior NASA official had opened the door to NASA flying its first crewed missions to the Moon on a Falcon Heavy rocket built by SpaceX. An official with the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    Another space project may be the beneficiary of this new impetus to return. William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, indicates that the “Gateway Project” that establishes a lunar orbital outpost for Mars missions could provide extra incentive to speed up the lunar launch.

    The small, periodically visited outpost near the moon was originally conceived to test technologies needed for a trip to Mars or asteroids. But NASA’s partners, mainly Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, would only play along if it served as way station to the moon as well.

    Rebranded simply “Gateway,” the agency also began drafting a partially reusable lunar lander that could be parked at the outpost between sorties to the lunar surface. Other companies, like Lockheed Martin, have designed reusable lunar spacecraft designed to dock with the Gateway.

    Gateway proponents assert that it would be more efficient and convenient to assemble the components of the lunar expedition at a hub in the orbit around the moon. Once assembled, the lunar landings could proceed with more destination options.

    Do you think that if a movie is ever made of our return, it will feature an American flag?


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    DouglasJBender | April 8, 2019 at 9:03 am

    “Without a vision, the people perish.”

    Albigensian | April 8, 2019 at 9:33 am

    We’re much more risk-averse now than we were in the 1960s. Death in space was acknowledged as a significant risk then, which could be reduced but not eliminated. And compromises were made even there: for example, a “lifeboat” strategy to return Apollo astronauts from lunar orbit or the lunar surface (if the return rocket or ascent stage had failed to perform) could have been implemented, but would have delayed the program.

    Today it’s still understood that lethal risk can’t be eliminated, but we’d be far more likely to bust schedule and/or budget to reduce it as much as possible.

    But there’s also the general sclerosis that’s made it increasingly difficult to build anything large and expensive. The Second Avenue Subway in Manhattan, for example: this might have cost less than 10% as much a century ago as now, and still not have taken as long. Boston’s Big Dig, San Francisco’s new Oakland-Bay Bridge, etc., etc. show that when it comes to large publicly-funded projects everything takes longer and costs more (if it can be done at all).

    And then there’s the question of whether it’s worth it. From a pure science PoV, robotic spacecraft will always be a far better value than crewed ones and, yes, electronics is the one area in which technical progress has been huge: no one’s yet built a rocket larger than the Saturn V, but the gulf between 1969 digital control systems and those available today is enormous.

    But science wasn’t the reason Americans went to the moon in 1969, and it need not be the reason for doing so today. In 1969, we went because we knew if we didn’t the USSR would. Today it seems overwhelmingly likely that if we don’t, China will. And even aside from national prestige, the Moon may have strategic value.

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