Flying to the Moon — From the Space Station?

by Nancy Atkinson on October 11, 2010

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The ISS, from the shuttle mission in May 2010. Credit: NASA

Last month the International Space Station partner agencies met to discuss the continuation of space station operations into the next decade and its use as a research laboratory. They also did a little forward thinking, and talked about some unique possibilities for the station’s future, including the potential for using the space station as a launching point to fly a manned mission around the Moon. I don’t know what our readers think, but my reactions is: this is just about the coolest idea I’ve heard in a long while! I’m having visions of a Star Trek-like space-dock, only on a smaller scale! In an article by the BBC’s Jonathan Amos, the partners said they want the ISS to become more than just a high-flying platform for doing experiments in microgravity, but also hope to see it become a testbed for the next-generation technologies and techniques needed to go beyond low-Earth orbit to explore destinations such as asteroids and Mars.


“We need the courage of starting a new era,” Europe’s director of human spaceflight, Simonetta Di Pippo, told the BBC News. For sending a mission to the Moon from the ISS, De Pippo said, “The idea is to ascend to the space station the various elements of the mission, and then try to assemble the spacecraft at the ISS, and go from the orbit of the space station to the Moon.”

One “next-generation” activity that is already planned is conducting a flight test of the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine on the ISS, which is the new plasma–based space propulsion technology, that could get astronauts to destinations like Mars much quicker than conventional rockets. NASA has sign a commercial Space Act with the Ad Astra company (which is lead by former astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz).

But starting a Moon mission from the ISS is really a far-reaching, kind of “out-there” concept. It would be reminiscent of Apollo 8, and be the first of a new philosophy of using the station as a spaceport, or base-camp from where travelers start their journey. The propulsion system would be built at the station then launched from orbit, just like space travelers have dreamed for decades.

Of course, this is just an idea, and probably an expensive proposition, but isn’t it wonderful that the leaders of the space agencies are even thinking about it, much less talking about it?

Of course, doing zero-g experiments would always be the main focus of the ISS, but just think….

With this type of mission, the future of spaceflight actually be as Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield describes in the video below. “This is the great stepping off point of to the rest of the universe,” says Hadfield, who will be commanding an upcoming expedition on the ISS. “This is an important moment in the history of human exploration and human capability,… and the space station is a visible sign of the future to come.”

Read more about the idea of an ISS-based Moon mission at BBC.

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Torbjorn Larsson OM October 12, 2010 at 10:39 AM

As Hydrazine notes, this is ISS centered, not mission centered. The Apollo is the best Moon method for the things that we can afford, as Constellation confirmed. ISS is a LEO station, not a way station on the current level of technology.

That said, if the tanker concept comes into being, the best way to supply LEO with fuel is likely from the Moon. But ISS is long dead if and when a Moon industry is born (launched?).

These types of things, artificial demand on current investments, must be recognized for the economical-political pork breeding grounds they are.

Olaf October 12, 2010 at 12:04 PM

@hydrazine
Personally I find the ISS not useful in this grand scheme of things.
Maybe in 50-100 years a orbital station might be useful.

Spoodle58 October 12, 2010 at 1:15 PM

There is one thing that it adds to a Moon Mission, Drama, which is what the public loves.

Maybe it could be done like this.
Launch a progress to the ISS, parking orbit near ISS.
3 ISS crew undock from ISS in soyuz and rendezvous and dock with progress.
Fire progress engines to send craft towards the moon.
Lunar orbit, undock from progress, take some pictures, do a space walk.
Fire soyuz engine to come home, dock with ISS for a drink of red bull (sponsors) before heading home. :)

wjwbudro October 12, 2010 at 2:46 PM

I would think the ISS consortium experts are considering more positives than negatives else, why would this subject be broached in the first place?
My 1st thought was the elimination of the cost and development of a “heavier” heavy for BLOE, not to mention the cost per launch. Use the cheaper lifts currently available and “tested” (commercial or other) to stage it all (esp. fuel cells) at the ISS. “Tinker toy” assembly has come along way, even in space. lol

high_school_astronomer October 12, 2010 at 3:18 PM

I realize of course that this would still require (at least) the same amount of energy as launching the ship all in one piece, but it has the advantage of allowing one to use the medium lifter rockets we already have, as WJWBUDRO said. Also, if we ever get around to developing a spaceplane, like the Skylon, being worked on by Reaction Engines Limited, you would probably want to do something like this–they just wouldn’t have enough capacity for a lunar lander. Then you have to consider how bulky some spacecraft can be
I also though that Olaf made a good point. As for why you would want to return something to the space station… Well, you’d probably bring your samples down to Earth with the astronauts but you could still reuse most of the ship–meaning huge savings.
Overall, I think think this is a good idea. If the ISS isn’t used for this, then a Bigelow Aerospace station probably will be by some private consortium.

tripleclean October 13, 2010 at 12:15 AM

Could a shuttle be used by launching some type of custom external fuel tank(S) into LEO by a lifter and hooking it up to the same ports used for the main tank? Relighting the mains to inject into lunar orbit. Lunar lander launched/recovered via payload bay docking. Relight the mains again and return to earth maybe slowing down to enter LEO again so re-entry isnt so fast? I agree that the ISS isnt much use for a moon shot. Wait a minute… why are we going back to the moon?BeenThereDoneThat

LoboSolo May 15, 2011 at 5:07 PM

It’s in the wrong orbit to be useful as a way station to the Moon.

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