Friday, June 04, 2010

Opinions on Lunar Policy and Communication

Following up on my previous post, I'd like to take a bit of a detour away from prizes in this post. I'm not surprised there is so much confusion about NASA's lunar plans. With NASA's new approach, all destinations are subject to results from commercial space development, robotic precursors, technology development, international participation, and future budget decisions. That's a source of confusion that's inherent in the new approach.

To compound that confusion, however, NASA's communication concerning the Moon has not been consistent or clear. That's not surprising considering that NASA is a large, diverse organization, and some of the communication is actually from outside NASA itself.

Here is an example where NASA's plans are presented: A Bold Approach for Space Exploration and Discovery - Fact Sheet on the President’s April 15th Address in Florida (PDF) - OSTP

... a set of stepping-stone achievements in space that will take us further and faster into space, allowing us to reach a range of destinations including lunar orbit, Lagrange points, near-Earth asteroids, and the moons of Mars, and eventually Mars itself. This sequence of missions will begin with a set of crewed flights to prove the capabilities required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit. After these initial missions, our long-duration human spaceflight technologies will enable human explorers to conduct the first-ever crewed mission into deep space to an asteroid, thereby achieving an historical first; venture into deep space locations such as the Lagrange points (potential sites of fuel depots that would enable more capable future missions to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations); and then send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth.

It's obvious from this statement that NASA's astronaut plans, just like the Augustine Flexible Path, include lunar orbit, Lagrange points, NEOs, Mars moons, and ultimately Mars. However, although lunar orbit missions and Earth-Moon Lagrange point fuel depots for, among other destinations, the Moon are mentioned, the statement doesn't specify that the Moon's surface is one of NASA's destinations.

With the understanding that reaching the Moon, like reaching all of the other destinations, will be subject to future results from various efforts like technology demonstrations and robotic precursors, NASA needs to formulate a specific, if tentative, policy position on the Moon.

If the Moon is one of its destinations, NASA should find an appropriate spot for it in its tentative but official sequence of future destinations. Given the confusion about the Moon up to this point, it then should present a document that lists and explains all of the steps it is undertaking that will make it easier to reach the Moon and that will make reaching the Moon more productive. This could include technology development, Lunar Quest science missions, robotic precursor missions, early beyond-LEO missions, and more. It should be done at a detailed level. For example, this document should identify how each relevant technology demonstration mission helps us to reach the Moon.

If the Moon isn't one of the destinations, NASA representatives should consistently say so. If reaching the Moon depends to a greater extent than the other destinations on future events, and thus should be treated as a possible but not mandatory destination (as was done in the Augustine Flexible Path), NASA should consistently explain how and why this is the case.

Let's assume that NASA does intend to return to the Moon at some point. The decision making and communication I described should help NASA gain support from at least some lunar surface advocates. This high level decision making and communication may also improve lower level decision making within NASA itself.

Let's suppose NASA's roadmap includes lunar surface missions before Mars surface missions. If that is the case and it's understood by all NASA decision makers, different technical decisions consistent with the larger policy decision might be made.

NASA's 2011 exploration budget proposal (PDF) describes the initial large robotic precursor missions. The suggested missions include
  • a lunar surface robot
  • an asteroid or Mars moon lander
  • a lunar or asteroid lander to demonstrate resource use
  • a lunar resource technology demonstration is also mentioned in another section of the exploration budget
If all of these precursors were done, that would be 2 lunar surface precursors, 2 asteroid precursors, and 1 Mars moon precursor.

In contrast, the Exploration Enterprise Workshop: FY 2011 Exploration Precursor Robotic Missions (xPRM) Point of Departure Plans (PDF) presentation includes the following tentative xPRP (i.e. larger than xScout) missions:
  • 2014: NEO Exploration Rendezvous Orbiter (NERO)
  • 2015: Teleoperated Lunar Lander
  • 2016: Mars Orbiter
  • 2018: Mars Lander
  • 2019: NEO TBD Mission
The ETDD Demonstration Project - Lunar Volatiles Characterization (PDF) demonstration would be flown on the 2015 lunar lander mission.

Compared to the original budget proposal, this is a big step in favor of Mars missions at the expense of the Moon (and, for that matter, Mars moons). Given the following considerations, it is likely that more emphasis would be placed on lunar precursor missions if the Moon were clearly put on NASA's roadmap:
  • The Martian surface is a far future destination compared to lunar orbit, and is also probably farther in the future than the lunar surface in our hypothetical policy scenario.
  • There will probably be a number of opportunities for Mars robotic precursor instruments to be hosted on NASA SMD or international Mars science missions, so dedicated Mars robotic precursors aren't quite as essential for Mars as lunar precursor missions are for the Moon. NASA has an ambitious Mars planetary science program. The Lunar Quest program is much smaller, although the Moon can also be addressed in Discovery or New Frontier missions. NASA's robotic precursor plan includes MOOs, which are Missions of Opportunity to fly precursor instruments on non-precursor missions.
  • Lunar resources could potentially enable more ambitious missions. For example, fuel extracted from the lunar surface could be delivered to in-space fuel depots to be used in deep space exploration missions.
As an aside, a similar case could be made even without our hypothetical policy decision for a Mars moon precursor instead of a Mars precursor.

Similar decisions might be made in other areas.

A clear lunar policy could shift the balance of NASA science missions. For example, who will win the next New Frontiers competition: MoonRise (lunar sample return), OSIRIS-REx (asteroid mapping and sample return) or SAGE (Venus lander)? With a NEO visit early in NASA's astronaut plans and climate change as a high priority Administration concern, without a clear lunar policy decision and communication MoonRise would seem to be at a disadvantage if policy finds its way into the evaluation of the missions' science merits.

How ambitious will NASA's initial beyond-LEO astronaut mission(s) to lunar orbit be? How much solid lunar work will they do? A clear lunar policy could guide these decisions.

You get the idea.

Of course, if a policy decision and corresponding clear communication result in a shift in emphasis that is a bit more in favor of the Moon, while still maintaining the broad exploration goals of NASA's new plans, NASA is likely to win more supporters for its new plans from the lunar community.