Flying to the Moon — From the Space Station?

by Nancy Atkinson on October 11, 2010

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.

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