‘To the moon, Alice!’
For those not old enough to remember Jackie Gleason and his hugely popular Honeymooners TV show back in the day, that moon quip would be used whenever Gleason’s character Ralph would get in an argument with his wife.
That now seems to be the advice from President Trump’s transition team for NASA and manned space exploration. While Mars remains a distant goal, they are urging the space agency to do something spectacular during Trump’s first four-year term. That means a non-landing moon flight in 2019 or 2020.
Here what Robert Lightfoot, the agency’s acting administrator, said to space workers on February 15: “I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation’s world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.”
It’s a gutsy move, like what NASA did in 1981 when astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen flew the first space shuttle flight into orbit. No automated unmanned mission in April 1981… men piloted the Columbia into space. When the first flight of NASA new exploration rocket, a monster with more thrust than the legendary Saturn 5, four astronauts will probably be aboard the Orion spacecraft.
The mission is called Exploration Mission One (EM-1), and agency officials still must determine the parameters of the mission – if it turns out to be manned. Will it merely fly to the space station? That doesn’t sound Trumpesque, so I am guessing it will have to be out to the moon. An orbital mission, like Apollo 8 at Christmastime 1968? A non-orbital flight that loops the moon and returns quickly to Earth? A Lagrange point mission out to 930,000 miles from Earth, the farthest astronauts would have ever traveled in space. By contrast, the moon is about 230,000 miles from Earth.
As of now, NASA intends to propel an unmanned Orion to a deep retrograde orbit near the moon, a stable orbit in the Earth-moons system where an asteroid may be relocated by a space probe sometime in the 2020s for a future Orion visit. The 25-day mission will send Orion more than 40,000 miles beyond the moon. The retrograde orbit could also be an option for the astronaut mission.
If you read all of Gerstenmaier’s words, you will recall that he mentioned “record levels of private investment in space.” Those are code words for another option being advanced by Trump’s space transition team. If the early reports are to be believed, the Trump administration would like to channel federal funds into a New Space effort to land private astronauts on the moon by 2020.
With that speed-of-light timeline for a moon landing, SpaceX is probably the only New Space firm that can make it happen. The cutting-edge company is already landing its Falcon 9 first stages on landing pads or ocean barges on a routine basis. Entrepreneur Elon Musk and his SpaceX employees are already planning to land their manned Dragon 2 spacecraft on land using eight Super-Draco thruster engines. The Draco engines have even been tested. I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know how hard it would be to adapt the Dragon 2 to land and take off from the moon’s surface? If the federal government funds such a mission, I’m sure Musk and other space entrepreneurs will tackle the challenges and try to meet the deadline.
I’ve learned about NASA’s proposed new direction by renewing Nasaspaceflight.com’s L2 subscription level. Then I followed links to magazine and newspaper articles about President Trump’s possible plans for the space agency.
Whatever mission or missions get the nod, I expect there’ll be opposition. I don’t need to explain why… it’s been crazy since the November election, and it has gotten wilder since the inauguration. Some people will see space spectaculars as Roman-style circuses. We don’t even know yet what kind of budget bump will be required to fund one or both missions. Still, I find myself waiting to see what marching orders NASA gets – and how the future unfolds.
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I’m an author. I’ve sent Blessed Shadows Dark and Deep, my Civil War romance novel, to my publisher and await a verdict. Wings ePress published my other three novels, a fantasy trilogy, so I am very optimistic. The trilogy consists of The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin, and Assassins’ Lair.