The moon is a very patient place. It was once a very busy place. Early in its long history, a constant bombardment of space debris left it with large lava blasts that formed its so-called seas and tattooed it with thousands of craters that persist today. hui. The shooting finally stopped and the moon fell silent, and for billions of years it did more or less nothing, while the blue-white and aquatic world just next bloomed and thrived and exploded with life.
a little wink, the moon has also welcomed life. During four years, from December 1968 to December 1972, nine crews of human beings went into orbit and walked and even rolled over the face of the ancient moon. It was remarkable and improbable and, for the 3.5 billion human beings left in the country, absolutely exciting. But as suddenly as the visits began, they stopped. The humans are gone and calm has resumed.
All of this, however, may soon change. For the first time in five decades, the United States, together with partners in private and international industry, has committed to return to the moon and to do so according to a specific timetable. In December 2017, President Trump signed the first of three space policy directives, placing lunar exploration dressed at the top of NASA's program. With that, plans that were in development for a long time took on a new urgency. And these are plans that are very different from the way Americans first came to the moon.
Rather than the so-called model of lunar exploration of flags and footprints – with short-term crews in disposable vehicles landing on the surface, working for a few days at most and returning directly to the house – the United States now hopes to establish a long-term presence on and around the Moon. The centerpiece of the new system will be what NASA calls the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a mouthful of a name that hides a relatively simple idea. Gateway, as NASA sees it, will be a kind of mini space station in lunar orbit
Just like the gigantic international space station of 450 tons, this one would be built with the help of more than one dozens of other nations. Unlike the existing station, which consists of 15 habitable modules and a wide range of solar panels, Gateway will be relatively small – an assembly of 75 tons, consisting of one or two habitable modules, each with the size of a school bus, plus a snap-in module for power and propulsion and two others that would serve as an airlock for astronauts in the space and a docking port for incoming vehicles.
Astronauts arriving in NASA's developing Orion spacecraft significantly larger and more capable – could live aboard the Gateway for up to six weeks at a time, orbiting between a minimum of 1,200 miles above the moon and a maximum of about 47,000 miles. From there, they could make trips to and from the lunar surface in a landing craft similar to the lunar module of the Apollo era. Unlike the old undercarriages, they would be reusable and, over time, much more affordable.
"It's not a case of recreating Apollo," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said recently. "People say we have to go to the moon before China or India." Here's the thing: we've already done it, if we go back to the moon, we want to do it with sustainable architecture. "
The sustained architecture, of course, is an expensive architecture, and NASA funding has been stable for years – less than $ 20 billion a year, or 0.5% of the national budget, compared to 4% during most of the Apollo era. And while private industry plays a role in space exploration in the 21st century that it has not played in the 20th, the cost for the initial parts of the bridge hardware will come out from NASA's pocket. the first of this material will arrive in lunar orbit – shipped by unmanned rockets – in 2022. Humans could test the Orion on a loop around the other side of the moon and return home as early as 2023 and could establish on the bridge that same year. Shortly after, these same crew members could bring down the last jump to the surface.
"We are working to have astronauts on the moon by the mid-2020s, probably in the timeframe of 2025 to 2026," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and operations.
If NASA hits this lunar target, it will be a big step towards the next: Mars.The Moon remains an object of scientific research rich in itself, but it can also be a test bench critical for the systems that will be needed for the Mars planet: rovers, habitats, electrical systems and more needed for long-term settlements 19659003] "The moon makes sense as a way to exercise for Mars ", says John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University." Learning to live off the planet when it's only three days from home is a good idea before heading to Mars, which will be at least in eight "
Gateway could provide more than just know-how for Mars; it could also provide resources. The moon is a source of energy for water, air and rockets, thanks to the ice deposited in its poles and dusted through its topsoil or regolith. The astronauts could harvest the ice and transport it to the entrance gate, where part of it could be stored as water and the remaining H molecules could be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen. Astronauts to Mars could stop and pick up the supplies they need for their trip, sparing the huge cost of building up these vital elements of the Earth. A second housing module could also be kept at Gateway, which the Mars crew could pick up to extend their living space for the long trip and drop off on the way home
But if returning to the moon is a good idea, everyone does not agree that Gateway is the right way. For critics, the program looks like a job program and a source of money – the kind of thing that happens so often when a new administration arrives and wants to mark its space policy, imagining some something new simply because it's new.
"We make these decisions based on politics," says Terry Virts, a former astronaut and Gateway skeptic. "We will build this thing, and then we will feel as if we should use it.The short term goal is to go on the moon and long term to go on Mars. We do not need Gateway to accomplish one or the other of these things. "
Moreover, Gateway is an order of magnitude more complicated than the Apollo model, which implied only three key pieces: the Saturn V rocket, the Apollo orbiter and the lunar module, which flew to and from the surface. In the last few decades, NASA has not been able to even get the basics in the exploration of human far-space. The Orion spacecraft and the prosaically praised Space Launch System (SLS) – the new generation Saturn V – have been in more or less continuous development since 2004, and their first scheduled launch dates have slipped several times. Even when the new spacecraft and propeller are commissioned, NASA plans to launch them at a frequency of only one year. The Apollo and Saturn V, on the other hand, made 10 manned flights in the window from 1968 to 1972.
With the slow kind of schedule, of the current space program, says Logsdon, "it will be a true way, to think that we can reach these Gateway target dates. "
NASA has heard all this before and insists that this time things are really different. "You can get your hands on the first Orion ready to fly," says Gerstenmaier. The SLS, he adds, "is almost ready, there is physical equipment there."
The material in a hanger, however, is not material on the cobblestones – let alone on the moon.A large number of obstacles will have to be overcome before the distance from the deep space is covered.
The catwalk was by no means imagined with the moon in mind. When former President Obama took office, he inherited an underfunded and delayed return-to-the-moon program that former President George W. Bush had launched in 2004 and much more like the old Apollo program Obama, who had shown little interest in space politics during his presidential race, dropped the Bush program, including the development of Orion and the SLS. (The rocket then called Ares V) .By traversing both Florida and Texas, the anchor states of the community s American patients, who can confuse the legislative aspirations and re-election plans of the president, are never a good idea.
The moon, however, would no longer be the goal. Instead, NASA will attempt to use a robotic spacecraft to find a small asteroid, move it into high lunar orbit, build a nearby mini space station, and send astronauts to lie down in the station to jump. until the asteroid. This unlikely idea – known as Asteroid Redirect Mission – has never passed the why? Test, and by the second term of Obama, the White House was quietly moving away, ordering NASA to focus instead on the arrival of astronauts on Mars in the 2030s. The bridge remained part of the new plan.
In 2017, Trump struck Mars, and replaced it with the moon. Gateway, however, a program that was already in motion, respected the laws of legislative physics and remained in motion. NASA and the White House insist that it fits comfortably into the program of the new moon, but it's not such a simple case to make. A Mars-bound spacecraft that stops at the Moon for gas and supplies still has over 99% of its journey ahead of it. A moon-bound spacecraft that stops at Gateway has already accomplished up to 99% of its journey
For Logsdon, there is some sort of ex post facto reasoning to keep Gateway. It's in the existing plan, so let's use it, even if we do not need it. "The question is, if Mars had not been the goal before, would you still have Gateway?" He asks.
NASA answers this question with a categorical yes, arguing that Gateway opens much more lunar surface than Apollo. never could. The Apollo spacecraft encircled the moon in a tight, roughly equatorial path about 60 miles above the surface before the lunar module separated and headed down. The bridge will fly into what is known in space – speak as an almost straight halo orbit (NRHO). In English, this means a high orbit-like egg that surrounds the moon roughly from north to south
The irregular shape and positioning give orbit particular properties. Through a kind of gravitational balance between the Earth and the Moon at this place of space, just a flush of fuel to adjust the orbit to almost any one. which angle. Just decide where you want to land, orbit your orbit to fly over this place and get off your landing craft, including to the other side of the moon and the poles, that no Apollos will not. ;visited.
"Gateway gives us access to more parts of the moon," says Bridenstine. "In the Apollo era, the six landings took place in the equatorial zone. Imagine that you wanted to explore the Earth, so you sent a lander to Minnesota. What will you say about sub-Saharan Africa? "
Former astronaut Ken Bowersox, chairman of NASA's Exploration and Human Operations Committee, says that a flexible starting point that Gateway not only allows for more ambitious missions, but encourages them. "It's like a base camp on a mountain," he says. "When you build that, people are tempted to go higher, and they go higher." [19659002Partofthishigherescalationinvolvesthedevelopmentofnewtechnologies:therocket'sthrustincontactwiththelightneededtomoveintotheorbitofthebridgemeanslessrelianceonthetraditionalblunderbussofchemicalengineswhichconsumealotoffueladdalotofweightandcostalotofmoneyinsteadNASAwillacceleratethedevelopmentofwhatiscalledsolarelectricpropulsion(SEP)-asystemthatuses39solarenergytochargeelectthexenonwhichthenleavestheshipnotinaroaroffirebutinasilentflowThethrustproducedistinyacceleratingtheshipgraduallybutgraduallywhichmeansitcouldtakeweeksorevenmonthstoadjusttheorbitandflyoverwhereyouwanttolandButgettingreadytoexploreanewpartofthemoonwouldtakemonthsanywaywhiletheastronautsaretrainingandthelandinggearisgettingreadythebridge'sbasecampcouldslowlygetgoingplace
The major players in the industry Lockheed Martin and Boeing, to submit plans for the solar propulsion module of the bridge, and hope to award a contract by the end of the year . This module will be the first to climb in altitude, in 2022, followed by the housing module in 2023 – a lift of less heavy design, thanks to the accumulated experience in the construction of the 15-module space station. Of course, Gateway will need many more pieces before it is ready to fulfill its role as a lunar starting point. In addition to the mooring port and airlock that will be attached to the housing module, there is a need for robotic and manned landing craft, as well as embedded systems for processing and converting aircraft. water from the surface.
of this material is for the moment only vaporware, and even NASA admits so much. Breaking water into hydrogen and oxygen is easy enough, but if you want to do it cheaply and in bulk, there are questions to answer. For example, ice can be mixed with the lunar soil, but no one knows at what concentrations.
"It could be as rare as gold, and then you have to move tons of regolite to get water," concedes Gerstenmaier. Yet, if Gateway has more physical parts to put in place than Apollo, this also has a big advantage that Apollo does not have: partners. NASA's first spacecraft were custom-built machines. The agency imagines them, sketches them and then launches the bids for companies to build them according to specifications. The modern space market is more of a bazaar, with private companies designing and building their own boosters and spaceships and selling their services to government clients and businesses.
Even when something is invented as the SEP power module or lunar landers, NASA only describes in a general way what it needs for machines and then leaves it to private companies to care for them. perform competitive design work and arrive at a competitive price. The company that gets the contract is then free, like any business, to use what it builds and market it to other customers. After the end of the Apollo program, no one sold lunar modules to the next customer who wanted to fly to the moon, and that kept the profit potential.
"What's different now," says Logsdon, "is that you have private people. They are very interested in exploring the moon and the space, so that They may be customers of their own products rather than NASA. "
NASA's non-private partners are also important. When President Reagan first proposed the International Space Station in 1984, it was called the Space Station Freedom and there was nothing international about it. Like all other NASA initiatives, it was an American project on its own. But the Freedom program has drifted, partly for lack of adequate funding. In 1993, Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin began work on an agreement that finally reinvented the space station project into a consortium of many countries, which would provide money, and other materials. When the time came, they could also send astronauts flying with the flags of their countries on the shoulders of their spacesuits.
This – especially the astronaut part – was a boon for space programs that had been struggling for a long time. the shadow of the United States and Russia. Over time, 15 countries, including Canada, Japan and members of the European Space Agency, have joined the program, with the United States and Russia as main partners
With the station still in flight and the consortium inviting its partners to join the moon and march, and the partners join. At a series of meetings in 2017 in Tokyo, Montreal and Adelaide, Australia, consortium members agreed on the basic timeline of the Gateway project, settled on the NRHO as their initial orbit and reached least a preliminary agreement on countries. assume the design and construction of which components. Russia, for example, can provide the air lock module; Japan can provide an additional module that will assist in propulsion, propulsion and communications, and provide an airlock for scientific experiments. Canada, which has provided the robotic arms that have proved so essential to the outdoor work first on the space shuttles and now on the station, is open to building another for the door. Entry
the gateway, "says administrator Bridenstine. "It's a good problem to have."
Considerable obstacles remain, including the pinch of NASA's money. Of its annual budget of less than $ 20 billion, only half goes to dressed exploration, and only half of that half can go to Gateway, the rest being devoted to space operations. This type of funding is the main reason for the slow development of the Orion and the SLS, and although current gateway calendars promise a slightly faster pace, no one claims that there will be the financial support needed for the moon. NASA's press releases, perhaps inadvertently, reflect uncertainty, describing things that a Gateway component would "do" – instead of will – with launches that may happen "as soon" as given date. , which is very different from President Kennedy's goal of arriving at the moon no later than the late 1960s. Such conditional and ambitious planning could however be what the modern space program can do better.
"Hoping we can get similar budgets to Apollo for deep space exploration is a false hope," says Logsdon of the Space Policy Institute. . "The question is whether we can get enough additional funds to move faster than we are."
Finally, there is the persistent problem of Washington's political rip-offs, which can destroy even well-funded programs. From the creation of NASA in 1958 until the last landing on the moon in 1972, there were four different presidents – two from each party – and eight different congresses, and although they often quarreled over the pace and price of human space exploration, the largest, the lunar goal remained fixed. A modern Washington that can barely agree on short-term budget extensions just for the government to continue operating is not a Washington with the vision of succeeding in space.
But the moon remains patient; the planets remain patient. The most famous line in Kennedy's famous speech in 1962, when he set his lunar deadline was: "We choose to go to the moon." And the most powerful word in this line was chosen, we chose then We can choose again It depends entirely on us
This appears in the TIME issue of July 30, 2018.