NASA’s Future

NOT GONNA HAPPEN! UPDATE!!!*At the end of this post.Looks like it’s really a Phase I environmental site assessment!

The Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory, or GRAIL, mission is a part of NASA’s Discovery Program. It is scheduled to launch in 2011. GRAIL will fly twin spacecraft in tandem orbits around the moon for several months to measure its gravity field in unprecedented detail.

I mean, if you think about it, does anybody really think our next set of mission goals goals will be a trip to Mars?

I don’t think so either.  

But they did have to have a good set of replacements ready and in place for the days that would have to follow the Space Shuttle program.

So what are they planning then?….

Up to now, NASA’s mission goals have always been very clear when it came to their long term objectives.

Traditionally, NASA has been able to see fairly well into their own future, thus allowing them to plan and execute vital missions over longer periods of time.

They’ve done this in order to make the most efficient use of their  extremely expensive and complex equipment.

This equipment, it’s support structure, and everything else it takes to run a space program are so expensive to develop and maintain, that goals of ten or twenty  years ahead are not only uncommon, they are the standard. Good thing too because as good as they are, I don’t think we have any astronauts qualified to land a Space Shuttle on the Moon.

But this time there’s a bit of a problem. This time, NASA is being fairly tight lipped about the “Future of NASA.” Now, I suppose this would be ok if we were simply waiting for our next rocket.

But we’re not…

The Space Shuttle program is officially shut down.

We’re not quite ready yet for Mars.

There are industry leaders already in the commercial sector performing payload launching competetively.

“Falcon 9” Commercial spacecraft launch

And the ISS is a reletively low cost, cooperative effort of nations
that really doesn’t offer the kinds of continued growth NASA desires.

There is only one real option left…

The Moon.

OK, why?


When? …..?

I don’t know! I’m no rocket scientist!

But… I am an observer. 

And, I’m thinking that a few more more
missions like the GRAIL expedition are likely. This will be so NASA can update what it already knows about the Moon prior to any real “mission Planning” stages.

I have no idea how many unmanned trips there will be, or how long something like this might take, but I would assume that trips like these would have to get done before we actually land again.

Figure what?

five years?    …..Ten?

I’m going to say closer to ten at the most.


then what….?

Pssst!   The picture above is a hint.

Here’s another.

One more!

Well, I guess it depends on which way the world has gone commercially, in rocket and payload delivery.

The results of all then current lunar and “near-Earth” planetary study will make a difference.

Finding out which technologies followed through to final development, and which ones are ready.

And what our then current political,economic,social situations are.

At that time, say ten years have gone by and NASA will have taken a good long look at where it wants to go next. Depending on what has changed, I figure they will announce a fifteen to twenty year (if not permanent)  goal.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade.

Which they will then initiate, complete with new vehicles, science, projects, careers, etc.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969

Ok, yes.

I will say.




Didn’t you all get the hints? I mean, there was the “GRAIL” satelite’s. (Mapping of the moon in many other ways as well will serve as a completed “lunar Survey” within ten years.)

The second clue was the Saturn 1 rocket and the fictional “air-breathing” package delivery vehicle . The Saturn 1 rocket was the first “heavy lift” rocket specificly designed to lift heavy payloads into low Earth orbit. We currently have many different types of both government and commercial configurations available internationally that can deliver standardised heavy payload to all viable orbits, up to and including the Moon itself. The “Big Brown Truck” concept is not that unrealistic.

And then there was the Boeing X-37 picture.

“The Boeing X-37, (also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle) is an American unmanned vertical-takeoff, horizontal-landing(VTHL) spaceplane. The X-37 is operated by the United States Air Force for orbital space flight missions intended to demonstrate reusable space technologies.”  Wikipedia

Depending on the goals set, these systems would be able to provide a low cost method of payload delivery and deployment operations that can help to support any mission requirements that NASA may require at the time. Up to including delivery and deployment systems on the lunar surface if the commercial systems have already developed to a workable point by then.

Oh, yea. And then there’s the picture of the Moon. 😕

As for a prediction to what levels of “Lunar Exploration” we might be looking at?

That’s a whole different matter entirely. Unfortunately, today’s technology is evolving so quickly, that it is difficult to accurately predict where some of our “concepts of reality” are going to be ten years from now.

D-wave Rainier C4 Quantum Processor

For all we know, Quantum computing may find cures to disease, and aids to longevity to such levels that all we relate to is Medical technology.

But assuming our environments, or general concepts have remained similar, I can see total exploration and settlement of the Lunar surface as a very possible scenario.


Russia wants Europe and the U.S. to go in on a moon base

Russia wants Europe and the U.S. to go in on a moon base
A manned moon outpost at the American Natural History Museum’s “Beyond Planet Earth.”

After six Apollo missions that delivered astronauts to the surface of the moon, the people of Earth have pretty much left the thing alone. Now, Russia’s national space agency, Roscosmos is talking with NASA and Europe’s ESA about establishing a permanent manned presence on the moon.

Not only is Russia planning to put boots on the moon, the country is looking to do so with international cooperation — something that harkens back to the Cold War, where it was “talked about by some Soviet and U.S. scientists since the late 1950s,” according to Russian news site RIA Novosti.

Also from RIA Novosti:

“We don’t want the man to just step on the Moon,” Popovkin said in an interview with Vesti FM radio station.“Today, we know enough about it, we know that there is water in its polar areas,” he said, adding “we are now discussing how to begin [the Moon’s] exploration with NASA and the European Space Agency .”

There are two options, he said: “either to set up a base on the Moon or to launch a station to orbit around it.”

The moon is a target that NASA has left in the hands of the burgeoning private spaceflight industry, deciding to focus instead on Mars, Solar asteroids and beyond.

It’s also nice to see that Roscosmos, which has recently hinted that the U.S. could be to blame for the agency’s recent, repeated woes, is still open to international cooperation in space.

RIA Novosti, via Fox and The New York Times

Photo credit: Dania Nassar/DVICE

Gingrich pledges moon colony during presidency

 COCOA, Fla. — Newt Gingrich told a cheering crowd along Florida’s Space Coast late Wednesday that he would establish a permanent colony on the moon, and develop a spacecraft that can get to Mars, by the end of his second term as president.

Tiny Lunar Cubes Could Explore Moon on the Cheap

Ultra-small and lightweight satellites, called CubeSats, have demonstrated their agility over the years to carry out space research in low-Earth orbit, typically using commercial off-the-shelf electronics.

A move is on to consider using these miniaturized spacecraft to further moon exploration — a new class of CubeSat dubbed LunarCubes.

When CubeSats emerged onto the scene, and ideas began to materialize about their uses in Earth orbit, the prevailing thought was “that’s impossible, you’ll never do it,” said Russell Cox, director of research for Flexure Engineering in Greenbelt, Md.

Now that scads of CubeSat missions have been flown or are on the books, the idea of these diminutive spacecraft heading for the moon has taken off, Cox said. [20 Most Marvelous Moon Missions]

More questions than answers

Robotic spacecraft launched by multiple nations, Cox said, have found the moon to be a much more dynamic and complex place than anyone expected. These missions, he said, have generated more questions than answers … so there are many scientific problems where one good, simple measurement could dramatically improve our understanding.

“Lots of people are going to the moon. It’s not all that hard to get there,” Cox said. “And every single mission in the last five years has found startlingly new information. There are lots and lots of things to think about.”

Several things are happening that can advance a LunarCubes program into being.

First, there are numbers of boosters already outfitted to deploy CubeSats into Earth orbit. Second, every geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) satellite placement is a potential lunar mission starting point. Also toss in the advent of weak stability boundary transfer orbits from GEO to lunar orbit.

And last, there’s the Google Lunar X Prize — the $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon. There could be multiple lander opportunities in the coming years, and they are all looking for science payloads, Cox said.

Dirt cheap

“Many people are completely unaware that this capacity is becoming available,” Cox said. A trio of science briefings on LunarCubes will be staged between October and April of next year, he added, to provide a thorough introduction to the topic and to start building bridges between science and technical communities.

What’s required for a CubeSat to operate in the deep space environment?

The jump from CubeSats lingering in low-Earth orbit to working in deep space, Cox said, means longer duration missions, taking on higher doses of radiation, and experiencing a more extreme thermal environment.

These are solvable, Cox said. “It’s harder, but it is definitely not impossible. The technology is very much there. You don’t have to invent new technology to make this work.”

But it also means an increase in price to build and test a CubeSat capable of going the lunar distance. The dollar leap would be from an Earth-oriented CubeSat costing a few hundred thousand dollars to a moon-bound version requiring a cash outlay of a few million dollars, Cox said. Still, that’s dirt cheap, he said, in contrast to any lunar mission that has an out-the-front-door price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars.

In a (lunar) swirl

One early proposal for a CubeSat mission to the moon is being spearheaded by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the University of California, Berkeley, with an assist from NASA’s Ames Research Center.

This mission would use a mothership to release several CubeSat probes on impact trajectories into the heart of lunar swirls and measure the magnetic field, solar wind flux and dust flux, until the moment of impact.

Lunar swirls are one of the most enigmatic geologic features on the moon. They appear as curlicues of pale moon dust, twisting and turning across the lunar surface in some locations. Understanding their formation has implications for space weathering, lunar surface water phenomena and the history of the lunar dynamo.

Viewed as ideal for this task is the National Science Foundation-funded CubeSat for Ions, Neutrals, Electrons & MAgnetic fields, or CINEMA for short. It was built by UC Berkeley and South Korea’s Kyung Hee University.

CINEMA is one of 11 CubeSats bound for Earth orbit on an Atlas V rocket that carries a hush-hush National Reconnaissance Office primary payload, now scheduled for a September takeoff from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.


Creative and low-cost ideas

The CINEMA CubeSat is adaptable to conduct some first-of-a-kind science at lunar swirls, for very low cost, said Ian Garrick-Bethell, assistant professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Such a mission would also showcase the first use of CubeSats beyond low- Earth orbit.

“The strength of the magnetic field and the solar wind flux at the surface of these unique features are key science questions we could answer with a CINEMA-like impactor that measures and transmits this information in the last milliseconds before impact,” Garrick-Bethell said. “All we need is a ride to the moon, or a CubeSat propulsion system that can get us there on our own,” he told

“I think that once we demonstrate the ability to operate CubeSats in a planetary environment, a wide range of creative and low-cost ideas will start to emerge, potentially opening up planetary exploration to a wider number of participants,” Garrick-Bethell said.

Next generation lunar explorers

“I think lunar CubeSats have much potential,” said Jack Burns, director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute’s Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research (LUNAR) Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Small satellites with single instruments targeted for specific goals, say, a neutron spectrometer to search for hydrogen in craters near the lunar poles, Burns told, are potentially more cost-effective, scientifically valuable and, most important, can be led by student teams with faculty supervision.

“This will enhance our pipeline of next generation lunar scientists and engineers. Such CubeSats may be the way in which we might continue to scientifically explore the moon in the era of tight budgets,” Burns said. “With new rockets under development that can travel to the moon — like the SpaceX Falcon 9 and NASA’s Space Launch System — and carry CubeSats as secondary payloads, there may also be numerous opportunities to deploy such small instruments in the next decade,” he said.

Surface science

Still in a wait-and-see mode is Clive Neal, a leading lunar explorer at the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Civil Engineering and Geological Sciences in Indiana.

“In order to take the next leap in lunar understanding, we need to get to the surface…I am not sure CubeSats can do that,” Neal said.

There are a few orbital datasets that could still profit lunar science and human exploration, Neal added, such as long-term monitoring of the radiation environment over a number of years, establishment of a communications/surface navigation network, and studying moon-magnetotail interactions.

But Flexure Engineering’s Cox said the Google Lunar X Prize landers could offer LunarCubes a ride down to the moon’s surface. He envisioned using a mortar to lob the small spacecraft from a lunar lander.

“You could also bolt them to the deck of a lander so they could look up into the sky or down at the surface … or you could drop them onto the surface. Just understanding how the exhaust plume from the lander interacted with the soil is an interesting science and engineering question,” Cox said. A deployed rover could also haul several LunarCubes to be scattered away from the exhaust plume onto a pristine lunar site, he said.

“There are a bunch of raw science questions,” Cox said, “and likely plenty of interesting physics going on. There’s a lot of one-off science questions to be explored,” he concluded.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year’s National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society’s Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for since 1999.


Published on January 2, 2012 at 7:31 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I said it here first though!

  2. There’s no original date to this posting, so whenever you posted this, is left to speculation at best.

    Regardless, anything here, unless you posted this in 1990, wouldn’t of taken a rocket scientist (no pun intended) to predict.

    • It was PUBLISHED ON JANUARY 2, 2012 AT 7:31 AM
      It’s just under the share buttons. It was only earlier this month, and you’re right. It wouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to figure that this would be a next logical step. But then again, it’s the “series” of fairly specific steps to this point that I’m mainly referring to anyway.(perhaps my story didn’t convey this as completely as perhaps it should) But personally I thought the timing was kind of cool. And besides, as an amateur writer, it’s always kind of nice to have your writings “confirmed” (lack of a better word) rather than just copy and pasting the latest local press releases or those of other bloggers. In this case, something that I took the time to go ahead and “just write” was the one that had effectively “made the statement” first. (So it was about “Russia’s” intent to start. So it’s still just an idea so far.) But it hasn’t been something so specifically addressed before, nor has it been “announced as a specific goal” by any agency yet that I am aware of. Sure, it’s been discussed, and even counted as an eventuality (someday) But not in any form of specifics. Now I have to ask, since I did put down a somewhat specific time frame, and process, does that mean that if it happens in a different order, or perhaps a few years earlier or later, that I was wrong? Or that I didn’t get it perfect so nanny nanny boo boo?
      It’s just a blog. An opinion. Some thoughts. Criticize it then for accuracy if you really want to, but to do so to the enthusiasm is just petty.

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