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

Flying to the Moon — From the Space Station?

11 Oct , 2010 by

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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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high_school_astronomer
Member
high_school_astronomer
October 11, 2010 3:14 PM

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!

Uncle Fred
Member
Uncle Fred
October 11, 2010 3:22 PM

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..

Aqua4U
Member
October 11, 2010 3:34 PM

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

Harbles
Member
Harbles
October 11, 2010 3:43 PM

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.

lotusface
Member
lotusface
October 11, 2010 3:49 PM

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.

TerryG
Member
October 11, 2010 4:01 PM

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.

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
Member
IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
October 11, 2010 6:49 PM

@TERRYG,

“lunched”? wink

Malcolm
Member
Malcolm
October 11, 2010 10:34 PM

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

TerryG
Member
October 11, 2010 11:42 PM

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

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.

DeepSpace
Member
DeepSpace
October 12, 2010 12:41 AM

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.

hydrazine
Member
hydrazine
October 12, 2010 1:06 AM
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… Read more »
Jason
Member
October 12, 2010 7:02 AM

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.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
October 12, 2010 4:05 AM

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

jwilso91
Member
October 12, 2010 4:49 AM

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.

TerryG
Member
October 12, 2010 5:02 AM

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.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
October 12, 2010 5:27 AM

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

hydrazine
Member
hydrazine
October 12, 2010 5:29 AM

@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

Olaf
Member
Olaf
October 12, 2010 8:26 AM

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

Olaf
Member
Olaf
October 12, 2010 8:32 AM

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.

hydrazine
Member
hydrazine
October 12, 2010 8:46 AM
@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… Read more »
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