NASA to celebrate 55th anniversary of first Moon landing by, er, deciding how to land humans on the Moon again

In 2024, boffins realise a Saturn V is parked outside Houston

Wide angle image makes the moon look much bigger than the earth

US space agency NASA published its long awaited National Space Exploration Campaign Report this week, and it makes for sobering reading for those still recovering from its 60th birthday celebrations.

The report (PDF) was in response to the 2017’s NASA Authorisation Act (PDF) and is a little late. NASA does specialise in delays, so the fact the roadmap is only little tardy is something to cheer about. The report does not make cheery reading for those recalling the promises of the eras of the presidencies of George Bush and Barack Obama.

NASA currently has five distinct space exploration goals: to hand over low earth orbit (LEO) operations to commercial entities; build capabilities to support lunar surface operations; send prospecting robots to the Moon; get some more boot-prints in lunar dust; and finally demonstrate how humans might get to Mars.

ISS to Splash?

For the International Space Station (ISS), things look particularly bleak. Federal funding for the costly lab is due to end in 2025 and billions of dollars need to be found in order to avoid the ISS being sent to a watery grave somewhere in the Pacific. NASA’s solution is to try to get disinterested commercial outfits using the orbiting laboratory, something in which it has not enjoyed a tremendous amount of success to date.

The report sets a 2022 deadline for working out how to maintain “continuous access to a LEO space platform”. If commercial interest in the ISS remains muted then a smaller, "free-flyer space-station" is on the cards post 2024.

One intriguing nugget is the statement that US companies now have until "no later than 2020" to demonstrate the transportation of astronauts to LEO. After multiple delays, Boeing and SpaceX are both currently working to 2019. If this does indeed slip to 2020, then there is the very real possibility of no US astronauts being present aboard the ISS.

Back to the Moon! Some time

In the Obama era, NASA had planned to send astronauts to Mars. Now, it might get to the Moon. By the end of the 2020s. Maybe.

For humans, NASA’s current lunar plan calls for its Gateway to be flung into lunar orbit with the first element, the power-propulsion element (PPE) arriving in 2022. The completed station is due by 2026 and will be able to support four astronauts for missions of 30 days. Things sound cramped – as NASA said: “At its fullest, the Gateway will take up 20 per cent of the habitable volume of the ISS.”

NASA also expects that its current international partners will take part in building the Gateway. Russia has other ideas, not wishing to play “second fiddle” to its better funded US partner. With relations somewhat strained at the moment, the US agency would be forgiven for not being too distressed if their former partners did their own thing. If it weren’t for the fact that the Soyuz, which was originally designed to go to the Moon, remains the only game in town.

International arguments aside, 2020 will see the first uncrewed SLS/Orion mission to the “lunar vicinity” with NASA astronauts being strapped onto NASA’s gigantibooster in 2022.

In parallel to the human efforts, NASA also plans commercial services for its lunar payloads culminating in 2024 being the point when it will decide how humans will once again reach the lunar surface, and be returned to Earth.

The commercial sphere has its eye on Mars, with Elon Musk trumpeting the first paying customer for his BFR trip to the moon. Slightly closer to reality is today’s announcement that Japan-based Ispace has contracted with SpaceX to fling two spacecraft at the Moon in 2020 and 2021 as secondary payloads aboard the proven Falcon 9 rocket. The goal of the first mission is to orbit the Moon. The second will land and deploy a rover.

As for NASA, for 2024 and beyond, the report said:

Based on results of human-class lunar lander capability demonstration missions, status of other human systems, other possible mission enhancements (eg, retro-braking stage, launch vehicle availability) make decision on date and method of human lunar surface return and the mission objectives.

So there you go. Six more years before NASA will reveal the date and method for the next crewed moon landing. By then it will be 13 years since the last flight of the Space Shuttle and 55 years since the Apollo crews first stuck a flag in the surface. ®

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