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

Flying to the Moon — From the Space Station?

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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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.

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27 Responses

  1. high_school_astronomer says:

    Wow. This is another one of those moments when NASA and the other space agencies come out with a “revolutionary” idea that I, and other space enthusiasts no doubt, have been thinking of for years. Yes, it would be a good idea to use the space station as a space port. Duh!

  2. Uncle Fred says:

    Why not add a few inflatable attachments and create a space hotel out of it too! The money tourists pay to go up there could recoup the station’s construction costs..

  3. Aqua says:

    I like the idea of reusing ATV’s, HTV’s, Progress and ‘left over’ MPLM’s to put together a Lunar Space Station!

  4. Harbles says:

    Could someone well versed in orbital mechanics inform me as to if there is any dis advantage in having the ISS orbit inclined at 51.6 degrees versus an equatorial orbit for a fuel station and staging support to deep space missions.

  5. lotusface says:

    Yah! What space geek has not thought about this idea before? Use heavy lift to get the parts of the ship to the station, assemble it there, test it there, then go to the moon without having to carry the fuel to reach 17,000 mph from Earths surface. Fly back to the station and Soyuz them back to the surface. Make it so the capsule could be turned around at the station and this system becomes more economical every time we use it.

  6. TerryG says:

    Hello Harbles,

    IIRC the inclination is chosen to make the ISS an easier target to reach from Baikonur where the Soyuz and Progress rockets are lunched from.

  7. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE says:

    @TERRYG,

    “lunched”? 😉

  8. Malcolm says:

    Amazing!!! They thought of this only now! If you go back to Von Braun, and Colliers, this was the entire purpose of a Space Station – as a stepping stone to the Moon, Mars and beyond. Its elementry astrodynamics. Once you are up at the top of the gravity well, all the hard work is done, and you can go anywhere.

    I’m sure that I’m like most space enthusiasts, who have been crying out for the ISS to be focused on supporting manned space operations beyond LEO. Its well past time that we stop focusing on growing bean sprouts in Zero G, and start staging deep space exploration from the ISS.

    Malcolm,
    Canberra, Australia

  9. TerryG says:

    Thanks Ivan3man, the lesson would be it’s best not post on an empty stomach. 🙁

    Malcolm, makes a great point. Perhaps now, we have heard an end to submissions from the fiscally challenged that a moon base is a necessary stepping stone to other paces. Go Canberra Raiders.

  10. DeepSpace says:

    What a waste of human resources to let ISS be anything less than our next step forward. If nothing else this would make a fantastic lifeboat for future missions to the the Moon and Mars. Strap on a booster or two and set it into orbit around the Moon or Mars. Remember Apollo 13 when your far from home the ISS could be a staging post for supplies, air or rescue.

  11. hydrazine says:

    It looks cool but the advantages aren’t as big. From an energetic point of view you still have to move the same amount of hardware and fuel. We don’t have any resources up there floating around. The first stop that does have materials we could use without getting them there ourselves is the Moon. It would be better to launch everything in one piece (saves energy and time it will take to bolt the thing together) but we don’t have a launch system that could manage this kind of massive payload and it ain’t looking like we will get one any time soon. Moreover, putting the modules together is easier when you have some terra firma to stand your moving equipment on. On the plus side, of course, is the fact that we can use ISS as a laboratory to check whether the technologies we want to use work in vacuum and weightlessness. That would actually fit the whole idea with ISS – to have and use a test site in orbit. It is also an advantage to have comfortable resting facilities (sort of) and an on site garage so you can undertake more ambitious construction endeavours that span days and weeks. Consequently, IMHO, it would be cheaper to build things on Earth but we could learn some new things by doing it in orbit without having to risk astronauts’ lives too much.

    Regards,
    /hydrazine

  12. Johnson says:

    It is an astonishing idea to use the space station as spaceport!
    I think manned flight around Moon should be considered with the possibility of using cutting edge technologies to build a lunar space station.

  13. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Hydrazine’s comments are the most salient here. The ISS buys you little in the way of energy use or much of anything else. Whether a lunar craft and crew are lofted in a single launch vehicle, or done piece meal fashion with the ISS as a weigh station, has little influence on the expense and energy required.

    LC

  14. jwilso91 says:

    Hydrazine pretty much covers it. Unless you are sending out something that’s too large, unwieldy or fragile to launch to orbit with a single booster, it doesn’t make sense to do a stopover at the ISS. If your mission requires bolting multiple payloads together (fuel tanks, for example) then _maybe_ it would make sense to use the ISS’s personnel for construction. I’m not convinced that NASA or any of the other agencies would be keen on allowing such activity, with attendant risk of lost pieces, botched dockings, and miscellaneous massive unmanned flying chunks of stuff in the ISS’ vicinity anyway. Their culture is risk-averse.

  15. TerryG says:

    LC,Hydrazine et al….Whatever the primary mission (Moon fly-by, Mars fly-by, Near Earth Asteroid landing), returning to Earth by way of the ISS saves lugging a re-entry capsule around with you. That sounds like an energy saving on the primary mission plus it leaves more room for science payload or stores for life support etc.

  16. Lawrence B. Crowell says:

    Terry G, it might save lugging a re-entry capsule with you, but you have to lug the fuel required to enter into Earth orbit. The biggest cost in mass and energy is fuel.

    LC

  17. hydrazine says:

    @TERRYG

    When you are coming back from deep space having the crew do anything other then immediate re-entry doesn’t make much sense. For one you really want to get the astronauts back on Earth ASAP. Secondly, you are likely to go at such speeds that a stopover in orbit would require a lot of breaking in vacuum of space which means a lot of fuel and possibly extra hardware. That’s a no no. Also an extra docking at ISS adds hazards which is never very welcome in this business.

    Regards,
    /hydrazine

  18. Olaf says:

    @hydrazine
    If you want to reuse the rocket then it is interesting. Once the rocket returned you can refuel it to be used again.

  19. Olaf says:

    Assume you have an incoming spacecraft returning from the moon. Then the descent capsule could be ejected to enter earth’s atmosphere and the rest of the unmanned rocket could take a different orbit that might take many months to slow down and get the speed of the ISS to dock. I am thinking about aero-breaking.
    This part can then be reused.

  20. hydrazine says:

    @OLAF

    It just occurred to me that to some extent I would agree with you, i.e. if you want to have a ferry between the Earth and, say, the Moon that might be interesting. With a payload that is in no hurry to get to Earth you could ease it into orbit by means of for instance aero-breaking. But then why would you want this stuff to go to ISS? If you bring with you samples or other materials you’d probably want it go to labs on the ground not in orbit. So I still believe the rationale for stopping at ISS or anywhere else in orbit is a bit thin. I do confess, however, that the sentimental me would like to find a reason to have the ISS somewhere in the picture.

    Regards,
    /hydrazine

  21. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    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.

  22. Olaf says:

    @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.

  23. Spoodle58 says:

    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. 🙂

  24. wjwbudro says:

    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

  25. high_school_astronomer says:

    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.

  26. tripleclean says:

    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

  27. LoboSolo says:

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

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