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Op-ed on the beginning of Vision for Space Exploration

Op-ed on the end of the Constellation program




ATK proposals

Above: Scaled models of Shuttle-derived vehicles proposed for the Vision for Space Exploration were displayed at the Paris air and space show in Le Bourget in June 2005. Copyright © 2005 Anatoly Zak



Various configurations of Shuttle-derived launnchers as envisioned by ATK in 2005. Click to enlarge.

Artist concept of a lunar module proposed for the Vision for Space Exploration, as of Dec. 4, 2006. Credit: NASA

Ares family

Scale models of Ares I (left) and Ares V rockets displayed at the Paris air and space show in Le Bourget in June 2009. The program had only a couple of months to exist in its present form. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


The J-2X engine would borrow technology from the Saturn V moon rocket of the 1960s to employ it onboard the 21st century Ares series of launch vehicles. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak



Scale models of the Orion spacecraft (top photo and bottom left) and its launch escape system displayed at the Paris air and space show in Le Bourget in June 2009. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


The design of the Ares-1 rocket around the time, when its development was canceled in 2010. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak

On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush announced a new goal for the US manned space program, envisioning the return of American astronauts to the Moon "as the launching point for missions beyond." The program would be financed at the expense of the Space Shuttle program, which had to be retired in 2010 and the US withdrawal from the International Space Station program in 2015. NASA budget would remain largely flat, not counting adjustments for the inflation.

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NASA invites partners to a lunar base

Published: 2006 Dec. 4

NASA officials, leading the US effort to return humans to the Moon, said they were expecting international partners, to contribute to the construction, operation and use of a future lunar outpost.

Speaking at the formal unveiling of a proposed lunar architecture on Monday, Dec. 4, 2006, NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale, said that the agency had committed to the construction of a permanently occupied lunar base beginning in 2020.

Dale said that beginning in 2007, NASA would actively engage international partners into discussions on their possible contribution into the program. She specifically mentioned a proposed Russian-European lunar transportation system, which could provide needed redundancy to the US-built rockets and landers, supplying the base. The origin of this philosophy can be traced to the International Space Station program, whose survival after the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, was ensured by the Russian Soyuz and Progress transport ships.

Doug Cooke, Deputy Associate Administrator, Exploration Systems Directorate, said that although the US would remain a sole developer of all critical systems, including launch vehicles, communication and navigations systems, as well as spacewalk hardware for the lunar base, a number of elements still could be contributed by international partners or by the private industry. Among possible contributions, NASA officials mentioned additional habitable modules, including inflatable structures, and lunar surface rovers.

Lunar lander

The US lunar base would start with landings of a yet-to-be-developed manned lunar lander, carrying a crew of four, which would initially spend only short periods on the surface. According to Scott Horowitz, NASA Associate Administrator, after 2024, first sorties to the lunar surface would be followed by long-duration missions, lasting up to 180 days, eventually leading to permanent occupation.

As of December 2006, the preliminary design review of the lander was not expected before 2011-2013, therefore the architecture of the ship would remain "fluid" besides its basic requirement to carry cargo and a crew of four.

Lunar base

Most new information revealed at the December 4, 2006, briefing concerned the lunar base itself. NASA announced that it narrowed its choice of locations for the future base to the polar regions of the Moon. A combination of factors, including easy access, scientific potential and all but constant sunlight were among the factors prompting this choice. The ample of sunlight would guarantee reliable power supply to the base through solar panels, even though eventually the nuclear power sources could become preferable, NASA officials said.

NASA identified a narrow strip on the rim of the Shackleton Crater near the South Pole of the Moon as one of the preferred sites, though not yet the final location of the base. The officials said that the location itself was well illuminated by the Sun, but at the same time bordered a region believed to be in the shadow for eons. As results, the accumulations of the water ice at the site could be a major source of resources for the future base.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, LRO

As of December 2006, NASA planned to launch an unmanned lunar orbiter designed to conduct detailed cartography of the Moon to provide data for the final selection of the site for the lunar base.

Robotic lander

As of December 2006, a robotic lander was to be sent to the lunar surface to investigate potential site for the lunar base sometimes after 2010.

Ares I booster

Specifically for the launches of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, NASA planned to develop a Crew Launch Vehicle, aka Ares I. The development milestones for the rocket looked as following (as of December 2006, unless noted otherwise):

2008: Live test flight of the Launch Abort System for the crew

2009: Test launch of a live first stage and a mockup second stage

2010 December: The first J-2X engine test at a just completed stand at the Stennis Space Center to support Aers I and Ares V programs. (As of May 8, 2007)

2012: "All-up" test launch

2015 March: The first manned launch of NASA's Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (into the low Earth orbit) (Date as of March 2007. From January 2004 to Aug. 30, 2006, the mission was expected as early as September 2014).

Orion CEV spacecraft

The Orion Crew Exploration vehicle spacecraft would carry the crew to the Earth orbit , toward the Moon and in the orbit around the Moon.

Ares V booster

Within the Vision for Space Exploration, NASA also committed to develop a heavy-lift booster designed to deliver a lunar lander, along with a fully fueled escape stage, into the low-Earth orbit. After the CEV docks with the lander in the Earth orbit, the escape stage would propel the whole stack toward the Moon. The rocket was designated Ares V (Ares-5), to commemorate the Saturn V (Saturn-5) moon rocket.

NASA troubles with silver lining for Russia

Published: 2009 Sept. 9

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A decade and a half after partners in the International Space Station, ISS, project reached a deal bringing Russia onboard, the history might be repeating itself, as financial problems push NASA back toward its old foreign partners.

The economic need for international cooperation in manned space flight will likely be the most important conclusion of the review conducted by a special panel appointed by US president Barack Obama. Known as Augustin panel after its chairman, the group released a summary report on its findings Tuesday. Although the release and following media reaction focused largely on “American-only” solutions to current NASA budgetary problems, it become the first US government document in half a decade, opening door to foreign partners for the meaningful participation in the future US manned space flight. “If international partners are actively engaged, including on the “critical path” to success, there could be substantial benefits to foreign relations, and more resources overall could become available (for achieving the goals of the US manned space flight),” the report said in the summary of its key findings.

This statement, buried at the end of the document, essentially reversed five years of American policy of excluding international partners from providing any key elements of NASA’s strategy for the return to the Moon, such as launch vehicles, transport spacecraft or lunar landers. When in 2004, the Bush administration initiated the Constellation program, it hoped to use NASA-only funds from retiring the Space Shuttle and withdrawal from the ISS project to pay for ambitious goals of building a permanent base on the Moon and even mounting human expeditions to Mars. That is until it became clear the scheme was not feasible, as this web site predicted in the midst of all the enthusiasm immediately following the public unveiling of the Constellation program.

As in 1993, the Augustin panel again cited "benefits to foreign relations" as the first reason for possible cooperation, while, in reality, money remains the one and overwhelming force driving US toward cooperation. In 1993, modestly priced Russian modules and transport spacecraft could essentially bail out NASA’s bankrupt Space Station Freedom, however a newly elected Clinton administration could have a hard time selling such an arrangement to Republicans in Congress and flag-waving Americans. As a result, economic reasons for Russian-American cooperation were masqueraded with a self-congratulating "Marshall plan in space" supposedly aimed to prevent unemployed Russian rocket scientists from seeking jobs in Iran. American press then dutifully advertised this secondary, but politically smooth explanation as the main reason for the Russian involvement in the ISS. However, the same way economic problems of the 1990s trumped American nationalism and forced the US to accept Russians into a "critical path" of the ISS program, NASA might again have no choice but to ask international partners to help it to reach for the Moon and beyond.

Conveniently, Russia just unveiled its own ambitious plans to send humans to Mars and even farther, which it said it could not implement without foreign involvement. In addition, unlike NASA’s current vision, Russia saw the ISS and its possible successor essential for any future deep-space exploration. The Augustin panel agreed, stating "…the return on investment to both the United States and our international partners would be significantly enhanced by an extension of ISS life (beyond 2015)." Russian and European officials likely breathed a sign of relief, since both -- next-generation Russian spacecraft and prospective European transport vehicle -- would need the station, as at least an initial destination in space.

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; last update: November 9, 2014

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