NASA Seeks to Regain its Moon Legs

NASA'soutlook for the future calls for humans to dig in their heels on the Moon asearly as 2015 and no later than 2020.

Toachieve that goal, there is significant work ahead. For one, there's flying theCrew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) by 2014 as one element of the ConstellationSystems--the items needed to return humans to the Moon and eventually dispatchastronauts to Mars.

NASAhas started assessing notions for lunar landers that will haul crew and cargoto the surface of the Moon late in the next decade.

Andas NASA regains its Moon legs, it is worth noting what was left behind in thelunar dust. Six Apollo lunar landers touched down on the Moon between 1969through 1972. These two-person vessels enabled moonwalkers--often called the"dusty dozen"--to carry out work on the lunar landscape from Apollo11's modest 2.5 hours to Apollo 17's campaign of forays that added up to over22 hours.

Butthen was then. The search is now on to regain that ability.

Doing our homework

"Thelunar lander is probably the least well-developed of any of those pieces ofinfrastructure that the government plans to provide," said John Connolly,Manager of the Lunar Lander Pre-Project Constellation Program Office/APO atNASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"Wedon't know what the lander quite looks like yet," Connolly reported at a recentspace meeting. "We're not sure where it has to go or what it has to do."

Connollyexplained that NASA is intent on meshing the work of internal groups withoutside-the-agency brainstorming.

Lastmonth, NASA issued a Request For Information (RFI) meant to explore diversesets of lunar lander design configurations that may yield more innovativesolutions to supporting lunar surface missions.

"Itis about getting back to the Moon and doing our homework thereso we can go on to Mars and beyond," Connolly told "We'retrying to engage industry, academia, or any interestedindividuals and collect innovative lunar lander concepts that addressthe current set of Constellation requirements.

Thenewly issued RFI, Connolly said, demonstrates that there is more to theConstellation Program than just the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Science advice

Therebirth of human exploration of the Moon is one action item of former Apollo 17astronaut, Harrison Schmitt. While he's a been-there-done-that moonwalker, heis also chair of the newly spruced up and re-chartered NASA Advisory Council.

Inthat capacity, Schmitt has been busy building a bridge between the sciencecommunity and NASA exploration officials. "We want to make sure we have asbroad a basis for scientific advice as possible," he told a recent gathering ofscientists.

Oneof Schmitt's targets of opportunity: Having scientists help influence the newlunar lander design.

"Asconceptual designs of a new generation of lunar landing craft are beingconsidered," Schmitt told, "it is time for the broadscientific community to provide NASA with specific goals and objectives forscientific exploration and experiment deployment during or in conjunction withfuture lunar activities."

Schmittnoted that a similar effort by the scientific community in 1965 led to theinitial definition of scientific goals and objectives for the Apollo lunarlandings. That advice, in turn, influenced the design and re-design of the Apolloprogram's Lunar Module and Command and Service Module, he said.

A busy place

"Asthe Apollo program progressed, this definition matured into increasingly moresophisticated experiments and astronaut training. Geological exploration becamea prominent component of mission preparation," Schmitt added. "Such planningand preparation led to the extraordinary scientific understanding we now haveof the Moon and, as a consequence, of the early history of the Earth and otherterrestrial planets."

The human and robotic lunar sortie missions being planned by NASA will provide new opportunities for geological exploration of never visited regions of theMoon, Schmitt explained.

Schmittforesees the Moon as a busy place: geophysical sensors spread out to betterunderstand the interior of the Moon; observatories to add to our understandingof the solar system and the universe; and utilizing the Moon to prepare forfuture exploration of Mars.

Straightforward mantra

Fortheir part, NASA internal teams are scrutinizing a variety of items, from thedesign of the lunar lander itself, crew cabin layout, to pilotingsightline/visibility, as well as airlock design and landing gear--even how topackage lunar lander hardware for launch from Earth.

Also,there's interest in exploring options for deployment of a lunar outpost inpieces that can be packaged within the excess touchdown mass of a lunarlander.

Orchestratingall this effort is NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), ledby former shuttle astronaut, Scott Horowitz.

ESMD'smantra is straightforward: "Safe, sustained, affordable human and roboticexploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond ... for less than one percent of thefederal budget."

Several new twists toNASA's Moon strategy were issued by Horowitz late last month.

For one, the Robotic LunarExploration Program has been renamed the Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program(LPRP). The LPRP office will be located at the Marshall Space Flight Center inHuntsville, Alabama. A new Lunar Lander Project Office will also be located atMarshall. This office will be responsible for performing early studies anddeveloping requirements for the Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM).

These changes, Horowitzstated, will allow a greater synergy between the development of the overallarchitecture for the Moon, precursor activities needed for the ConstellationSystems, and their direct interrelationship with eventual lunar surfaceactivities.

Lay that infrastructure

Regarding the shuffling of Moon plans, Kelly Humphries, a NASA spokesperson at Johnson SpaceCenter said that any changes in internal NASA organization should not affectthe recently issued Request For Information. "NASA will continue toactively seek input from industry and academia, wherever the lander projectoffice is located."

NASA'sConnolly said the space agency has begun focusing on what to do once on theMoon. Part of that is getting all the pieces of hardware in place.

"Weneed to lay that infrastructure...first at the Moon and then to Mars...for thescientists and the commercial developers to follow. That is the fundamentalrole of pay for things too expensive for anybody else to afford,"Connolly observed. "Also, the role of the government is to get out of the waywhen those other folks show up."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.