Monday, December 24, 2007

All We Need Is a Good Map

Barbylon discusses the NASA budget in the context of lunar landers:

As NASA is underfunded in its ambitious Exploration program, it decided to cut the RLEP-2 lunar lander last year, saying all it needed for return to the Moon was "a good map." That might be true if you want to just land once, look around, and fly away. But this return to the Moon (we hope) will be so much more than that.

Yes, that "good map" statement (and related NASA decisions that seem to indicate the statement was made in all seriousness) was one of the more absurd ones we heard this year. If we returned to the Moon with humans with just the good map from precursor robotics, would we know where to go, what to do there, or why we're bothering? NASA's exploration program
is fortunate that foreign space programs, NASA's own Discovery program, and perhaps the Google Lunar X PRIZE are helping fill in some of the gaps while they concentrate on another NASA-designed and operated rocket or 2.

Barbylon compares small Lunar X PRIZE style missions to the bigger ones we might see from MSFC:

There are a lot of ideas out there for ultra-low-cost lunar missions, like little rovers for the Google Lunar X-Prize and other small sats. I'm all for creative design of lunar micro-orbiter or micro-landers. They could send back some cool photos or movies, and it would certainly generate a lot of excitement, which is political capital. But, those class of spacecraft can't do the real tasks that scientists and engineers need as part of renewed exploration - that is, sophisticated sample analysis at multiple sites, self-similar platforms to test human lander components, and sample return. To accomplish these significant tasks, we need a more serious investment. Even if you think NASA costs are bloated, try cutting them in half. The MER rovers cost $850 to launch. Cut it in half, then half again for a single lander - you're still over $200M.

I'd still like to see what kinds of cheap lunar missions Ames would come up with. I suspect they'd return more than just cool photos or movies, at a much lower cost than most would expect. Of course I don't know this for sure without seeing the proposals. Ames, bring 'em on!

It could easily be the case that multiple lunar missions in a sort of FDA food pyramid, with the big missions in the "Use Sparingly" category, would be the best approach.

I'd also like to see NASA encourage the Google Lunar X PRIZE teams to help NASA's goals by giving bonus prizes for meeting objectives of use to NASA. This could be, for example, scouting locations where NASA is considering sending humans, making specific science measurements, demonstrating some engineering capability, or delivering some small NASA payload. With this approach, a little incentive could go a long way. I'm not sure whether or not this meets the letter of the law of Lunar X PRIZE rules limiting government funding of teams, but it seems to meet the spirit, and is an opportunity NASA shouldn't miss.