Jan 02 2009

Obama Makes An Interesting Move On America Returning To The Moon

Published by at 12:49 pm under All General Discussions

George W Bush set the nation on a path to resume humanity’s exploration of space. I will admit up front that to participate in such an endeavor has been a life long dream of mine, and in the past few years I have been honored to be part of the effort to revive the exploration of space. I am therefore very much an advocate of such national investment. Especially since NASA’s measly annual budget of $13B is less than the country spends on pizza each year. For comparison, the DoD will consume the equivalent of NASA’s annual budget this year before Obama is sworn into office.

As can be seen in the above graphic, representing a concept for the new and improved Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM) which is now named Altair, NASA is going back to the Apollo model. But everything is much larger and more capable than the old Apollo systems. Just check out the size of the astronauts next to the Altair in the diagram to get a feel for the differences.

The Space Shuttle fleet (what is left of it) is being retired in the coming few years, and will be replaced by unmanned cargo rockets and a new crew exploration capsule called Orion. For missions supporting the space station all that is required to replace the shuttle is the Orion and a launch vehicle to get it into low earth orbit (LEO) to catch the space station.

Early Orion Concept Drawing

It has been almost three decades since NASA has attempted to develop new manned space flight capabilities. The Space Shuttle is the product of the late 1970’s and is the last manned space system to be deployed. It’s maiden flight was in 1981. I for one can attest that the challenge to NASA is pretty large, since a large majority of its current work force has not been involved with such a large and complex effort. But it does have some of the best minds at work on the problems that always arise on such large programs.

One area that has been challenging is the crew launch vehicle, named Ares I. It is derived from both the Shuttle and Apollo missions. The first stage is basically a 5 ring solid rocket booster from the Shuttle (the two rockets strapped to the sides of the tank on). The second stage is a modernized J-2 liquid fuel engine from the Apollo days (the yellow cylindrical segment below the Orion Service and Command module in the picture below – click to expand).


There have been some challenges with this concept and the result has been some delays in replacing the Shuttles. Now President-Elect Obama has come out with an interesting approach to these challenges:

Obama’s transition team is considering a collaboration between the Defense Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration because military rockets may be cheaper and ready sooner than the space agency’s planned launch vehicle, which isn’t slated to fly until 2015, according to people who’ve discussed the idea with the Obama team.

Obama has said the Pentagon’s space program — which spent about $22 billion in fiscal year 2008, almost a third more than NASA’s budget — could be tapped to speed the civilian agency toward its goals as the recession pressures federal spending.

NASA faces a five-year gap between the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and the first launch of Orion, the six- person craft that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station and eventually the moon. Obama has said he would like to narrow that gap, during which the U.S. will pay Russia to ferry astronauts to the station.

NASA is not happy to be having to go to the DoD for support. It means lost budget and control over the program. And, in all fairness, manned space flight is a very different level of engineering than sending up lifeless robots.

Additionally, there is a reason Ares I is named as it is, because the Ares IV is the larger version which will need to launch the Altair and Earth Departure Stage (EDS) into orbit so Orion can dock with them and head off to the Moon (see image below for Ares IV details – click to enlarge). The mass being contemplatedfor  transport to the Moon requires a heavy lift capability for Altair and its Cargo (habitats, process stations, rovers, power generators, etc). Whatever is done for Space Station support needs to also be a path to lunar exploration.

But on the flip side, NASA has already teamed with DoD on many efforts. So this is not something new. The DoD also teams with NOAA now on weather satellite systems. Removing redundant and overlapping programs is a very good thing to do. NOAA, NASA, DoD and Commercial space don’t all need to develop their own launch vehicles. It is much more efficient to use common architectures and components (and industrial base) to develop and maintain a fleet of launchers, with individual models tuned to specific uses. 

I have to admit I have been worried Obama would delay or cancel the new exploration of space. But this move indicates bold, out-of-the-box thinking that looks at innovative ways to save money AND meet the objectives. NASA would do itself some good by being more open minded and less inclined to turf wars. While the DoD launchers are not human rated, it doesn’t mean they cannot be converted with less cost and risk than a completely new development. A new development which has some serious challenges left to solve.

Engineers at the Ares I project office here are working with experts from across the country to better understand the thrust oscillation issue in the first stage, a five-segment version of the four-segment reusable solid rocket motor (RSRM) that is fired in pairs to power the space shuttle stack off the launch pad.

“Conservative” calculations of the potential frequency and amplitude of a thrust oscillation that could occur in the first stage as it nears burnout, and of the way that vibration links to the rest of the vehicle, suggest that it could set up a resonance that would damage critical components and harm the crew (AW&ST Dec. 10, 2007, p. 60).

A thrust-oscillation “focus team,” convened in November 2007, has since calculated that the problem may not be as severe as it appeared earlier in the fall. But the work continues under a looming March deadline, set so designers on both the launch vehicle and Orion can start work in earnest on mitigating the effect, if necessary, before preliminary design review (PDR) at the end of the summer.

Ares I was an attempt to reuse Shuttle components. While a laudable goal it has proven to be somewhat problematic. NASA needs to know when an idea may have past its peak, and when to look at options that are both politically and technically more advantageous.

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Obama Makes An Interesting Move On America Returning To The Moon”

  1. CBDenver says:

    I can understand why the DoD has such a large budget since they are charged with defending the US (i.e. me) against military threats. Granted, there is probably waste and graft in the budget, but at least I can see the benefits to me as a taxpayer. But what is the purpose of exploring space? I recall in the 1970’s when NASA budgets were being cut that some people touted the benefits of space exporation but I was not convinced.

    Why should tax dollars be used to explore space? Some think space exploration is beneficial, but should be privatized. See many arguments here to that effect http://www.angelfire.com/pa/sergeman/issues/technology/space.html

  2. AJStrata says:


    The fact you don’t know what NASA has brought to humanity and society is not the fault of NASA. It is yours.

    NASA has unlocked many mysteries of science and physics. Which have in turn allowed us a better understanding of how our Earth is built and what warning signs we need to watch.

    If you are stuck with a HS level understanding of science (which includes BA level science courses in college) then I don’t have the time or energy to bring you up to speed.

    Medical breakthroughs, technology breakthroughs, scientific breakthroughs, and inspiration for new engineers and scientists to take up the challenge of America leading the world on many fronts is what NASA brought.

    NASA provides the weather data that saves lives in forecasting storms from tornadoes to hurricanes.

    NASA is also the path through which many DoD breakthroughs make it into the private sector. The infamous and historic Hubbell Space Telescope was made possible by our intelligence efforts in the decades before.

    Gee, what else has NASA done? Oh yeah – it has made airline travel much safer – being the governments technology innovation center for Aeronautics.

    What else? Oh yeah – safety for our troops in harms way. Those unmanned rovers in the battlefield get a lot of technology from the rovers now on mars.

    I could go on and on and on. What you don’t know could fill a library – and does.

    BTW – private companies will not invest in what NASA does, which is why NASA does it and private companies are at most partners. I work in this area, I get the feeling you are an armchair expert????

  3. WWS says:

    CBDenver, you’ve got it all wrong. We don’t have to use tax dollars for this. We don’t have to use tax dollars for anything anymore. We just print what we want from the Fed’s magic money tree and it’s like MAGIC! We never have to pay for anything again!!!

    I just have to ask – why didn’t anyone ever think of this before? Oh wait – someone did. Well, we’re different. It won’t turn out for us like it did for them because we’re better. Or something.

  4. Mike M. says:

    The problem I see in this approach is that DOD’s own expertise with large solid rocket motors has waned. There just hasn’t been much work since the early 1990s. It’s like nuclear weapons – they take specialized knowledge.

    What has me vexed is that the whole Ares/Orion scheme was schedule-driven…which led to it being no more than Apollo thinly warmed over.

    We needed an effort similar to what NASA did in the early 60s…basic technology, X-vehicles. Solve the issues of a truly reusable booster, develop the nuclear-ion motor that will blow the Solar System wide open.

    And I would turn to DARPA for management. The NASA bureaucracy makes DOD look like a marvel of efficiency.

  5. Concerned Citizen says:

    AJ, we can all see your passion in this area — thanks for sharing your expertise.

    I’d like to discuss CBD’s post, I think he’s asking a very good question, one that is worth further discussion and I’ll follow that up with another question of my own.

    If there was a measurable, clear benefit to space exploration, wouldn’t more people support it? More precisely, if there were a measurable ROI, wouldn’t it be a “no brainer”?

    The problem is that programs that look for water and fossils on Mars don’t present much of a tangible benefit to the general populace. In fact, you can buy Martian meteorites containing fossils right here on Earth, for a very small fraction of the price. Who really wants to live on Mars anyway? There are many, many habitable places left on Earth that are cheaper to reach and colonize, if that is the goal.

    Historically, the driver for exploration was simple — it was about making lots and lots of money by gaining control of territory and peoples. Initially, it was all about gold and that justified the exploration, but the real value was something completely unexpected…biological wealth (corn, potatos, tomatoes, squash, beans, peppers, etc., etc.) has turned out to be hundreds of times more valuable.

    Exploring for minerals is the prime initial reason to go to our closest neighbor, the moon. It is also a good use of a manned mission, though advances in technology give a nod to unmanned missions in most circumstances (machines don’t need air, food or water). A dozen teams with picks and shovels searching for valuable minerals and its guaranteed you will identify enough of a reason to fund the building of lunar bases and keep the ball rolling for at least 20 years. The biggest opportunities can’t even be imagined today, but you need to start somewhere. Don’t think the Chinese aren’t looking at this!

  6. AJStrata says:


    CBD did not have a question, they had an assumption based on ignorance.

    And no, if average people have no idea of what day-to-day items and breakthroughs from NASA they rely on to have a better life, why would they then know to support the program?

    The fact is lack of knowledge is driving a lot of decisions these days.

    I hate to say this, but when people don’t understand the medical breakthroughs alone (which don’t come from martian fossils in meteorites), all they prove is how ignorance is not bliss.

    The point I was making is there are hundreds of things we use thanks to NASA – which would not be here unless NASA was doing what they were doing.

    The only group putting people in space is NASA, and there are many medical offshoots from that work.

    Things we would not have solved or discovered. I guess you don’t need me to tell you finding minerals is totally irrelevant to this.

    As it is for developing safer commercial airlines, or better computer technology, or better weather data. Do I need to point out how far into a rabbit hole you are on this?

  7. Frogg says:

    I’m with AJ on th is one all the way. Not only should we invest in our space program more…..but, it is long overdue.

    Benefits of the space program

    To the moon and beyond!!!!

  8. CBDenver says:

    Gee AJ — don’t you think you came on a bit strong there? All I did was ask a question about the benefits of space exploration. Suddenly I am an ignorant Luddite! If I had flatly stated that there was no benefit of funding NASA then perhaps your blasting of me would have been warranted. All I said was “But what is the purpose of exploring space?” Certainly that is not an “assumption based on ignorance”. Your sarcastic, defensive, and insulting response doesn’t really speak very well for you.

  9. crosspatch says:

    How soon people forget their history. NASA was teamed up with DoD back in the Mercury and Gemini days, too. What were the boosters that launched the first civilian satellites and put the first men into space? They were ICBM boosters. The booster development was military. It wasn’t until the Saturn project that NASA had its own booster. And even then the Saturn was born from the DoD.

    The Saturn project was started as one of a number of proposals to meet a new Department of Defense (DoD) requirement for a heavy-lift vehicle to orbit a new class of communications and “other” satellites. The requirements, drawn up by the then-unofficial Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), called for a vehicle capable of putting 9,000 to 18,000 kilograms into orbit, or accelerating 2,700 to 5,400 kg to escape velocity. Existing launchers could place a maximum of about 1,400 kg in orbit, but might be expanded to as much as 4,500 kg with new high-energy upper stages. In any event, these upper stages would not be available until 1961 or 62 at the earliest, and would still not meet the DoD requirements for heavy loads.

    Wernher von Braun’s team at the U.S. Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) started studying the problem in April 1957. They calculated that a rocket with the required performance would require a lower stage booster with a thrust of about 1.5 million pound-force (6.7 MN) thrust at takeoff. As it happened, the Air Force had recently started work on just such an engine, eventually emerging as the F-1, but this would not be available in the time frame that the DoD was demanding and would be limited to about 1 million lbf in the short term anyway. Another possibility was a Rocketdyne engine, then known as the E-1, which provided about 360,000 to 380,000 lbf, four of which would reach the required thrust levels. This approach became the favorite, and in order to quickly provide fuel tankage to supply the engines, a new stage consisting of the tank from a Jupiter wrapped with eight taken from the Redstone would be used along with a thrust plate on the bottom where the engines would be attached.

    The Saturn was a derivative of the Jupiter project … a “super Jupiter” according to the Wikipedia article.

    And it was also Defense requirements that initially drove Shuttle development. Recall the shuttle launch facility at Vandenberg AFB in California for classified DoD missions in polar orbit? That facility was scrapped but I have photographs of the test bed Enterprise being mated to the launch gantry at Vandenberg that I picked up from the Pentagon Public Relations office in the 1980’s.

    NASA has always relied on DoD for booster development throughout the history of the manned program. It is only recently that NASA has relied completely on its own budget for boosters. And if you look at the development history of those, you will also see DoD involvement.

    What Obama is proposing as something “new” is actually “business as usual” in a historic context.

  10. AJStrata says:

    Sorry CBDenver,

    But you have to understand the position of NASA, especially when we have had idiots like Al Gore messing with things.

    But the fact is, if you don’t know what NASA has provided us it really is because you haven’t tried to find out. Agreed?

    For me, exploring space is like exploring the New World. You don’t need a reason, and plenty of people are welcome to stay behind.

  11. WWS says:

    You make an interesting analogy to exploring the new world, AJ. There’s a historical lesson that most everyone overlooks.

    England allowed all of the original exploration and colonization to be funded privately, and then took hold as those private developments blossomed into sustainable communities. The English were also quite ruthless in seizing investments made by the Dutch in New York and the French in Canada, among others. This strategy allowed England, which was just a squabbling backwater in the 1500’s, to grow into the greatest empire on Earth by the 1700’s. Remember that even all of India was originally taken over by a private English corporation (the East India Trading Company) which only much later ceded control to the English Crown.

    Spain, on the other hand, always insisted on maintaining a very tight government control over everything they did. Although this model seemed to work for a while, mainly due to the cruel exploitation of a captive population and massive extraction of mineral wealth, the effort eventually caused what had previously been the greatest empire in the world to go bankrupt and fall into irreversible decline. Spain probably squandered more pure wealth than any other nation in history, and they did it with a huge bureaucracy that was in charge of every step along the way.

    Which model do we follow?

  12. AJStrata says:


    Easy – we follow the American (conservative) model. But we don’t sit on our hands and lose our leadership role.

  13. crosspatch says:

    The Earth has only about 125 million years left for to be able to support life as we know it due to the sun aging. In about that time, CO2 will pretty much be gone out of the atmosphere, Earth will have cooled to where volcanism stops, the atmosphere will outgas into space and the oceans with them.

    We have a window now so we can explore space and possibly develop what it would take to live off of Earth. If we don’t go now, we might not be able to go later.

    Without space exploration, mankind is doomed.

  14. BarbaraS says:


    I agree with both you and AJ 100%. This is a matter of national security in the future. It could be that the people of earth will need other colony planets to survive. It would be very short-sighted of us not to explore space now if only to gain the knowledge AJ mentions. However, there are gains now too. The satelites we have in space give us demographics of where the bad guys are. They are a wonderful source of intelligence for our military.

    Besides, isn’t the space station owned by the Russians? I thought they only agreed to a limited partnership with us. Do we even know what steps toward space exploration the Russians are making? or the Chinese? They seem to copy all our technology with the help of our former president.

    Who knows what Zero will do after Jan.20. It is tunnel vision to not explore space because some people do not see the advantages now. That would be like people saying they didn’t need electricity, the telephone or the computers to live the good life back when thee things were invented. We are in the baby stage of space exploration and it will many years before we become really proficient in space travel. We need to start now. The budget of $13B is not enough but then congress is full of fools and short-sighted loons. They are more interested in throwing money at spinach growers or charities that don’t exist than to think of the survival of the human race.

    By jingo, that’s it. Liberals don’t want the hman race to survive. They are killling future citizens by abortion and stem cell murder to make the planet purer. The only important people to them are the voters of today dependent on government.