Leading the Way Back to the Moon

Computer illustration of the CEV in orbit around the Moon. Image credit: NASA. Click to enlarge.
Jeff Hanley was only 8 years old on July 20, 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, but he can recall every detail of that day and all the specifics of that historic mission. Each of the Apollo missions to the moon made such a big impact on Hanley that space exploration became his life’s passion, ultimately becoming his profession. Now, Hanley has been appointed to lead NASA’s new program to return astronauts to the moon and prepare to send human expeditions to Mars.

Hanley started working at NASA while he was still in college and eventually became a flight controller in Houston’s Mission Control for 13 years, and then became a flight director in 1996. He oversaw two of the complex missions to refurbish the Hubble Space Telescope and was the lead flight director for the first expedition crew to the International Space Station in 2000. He led the Space Station Flight Director Office for two years before being promoted to chief of flight directors for all space missions in January of 2005.

Hanley has served in his current position as manager for NASA’s new Constellation Program since October 2005. His tenure thus far has been a series of constant meetings, briefings and trips around the country to the various NASA centers. His job is to lead the development of a new spacecraft and launch system, the focal point of NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration.

“We have not developed a new crew launch system from scratch since the space shuttle in the late 1970’s,” Hanley said. “That’s a generational gap we have to overcome, so we’re building a bridge from what we have today to what we want in the future.” The space vehicles that Hanley and his team are designing are combinations of the best elements from both the space shuttle and the Apollo spacecraft with significant improvements that come from advances in technology.

The new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), while reminiscent of the Apollo blunt-body capsule, is three times larger with the capacity to carry four astronauts to the moon. It also has the ability to dock with the International Space Station, and the same crew vehicle will eventually carry astronauts to Mars. The separate lunar module will be able to land anywhere on the moon, including the poles, unlike the Apollo spacecraft that could only land near the equator. Initially, crews will stay up to 7 days on the moon’s surface.

“Apollo’s purpose was to send a man to the moon and return him safely to the earth,” Hanley said. “We go a substantial step beyond that with this architecture in terms of the capacity to deliver large amounts of mass to the moon and that’s really sending the signal that we’re serious about exploration and serious about coming to stay.” Developing a sustained presence on the moon will be the ultimate goal of the lunar missions, to demonstrate that humans can survive for long periods of time on another world.

Computer illustration of the CEV in orbit around the Moon. Image credit: NASA. Click to enlarge.
Instead of launching the entire system at once, the CEV and the lunar module launch separately. “In NASA shorthand we call it the 1.5 launch solution,” Hanley said. “The big heavy booster brings the lunar module and the upper stage to orbit and we’ll follow it with the crew launch vehicle, which launches on a smaller rocket, and the two vehicles will rendezvous and dock. Then we’ll light the Earth departure stage and send it on the way to the moon.”

Hanley continued, “We also want a quantum leap in safety and reliability in our launch systems over anything we have today.” Based on an engineering study, the new launch system will be 10 times safer than the space shuttle. The crew compartment sits on top of the rocket, unlike the space shuttle which is strapped to the rocket’s side. This allows for an escape system that can be used at anytime during launch.

The rockets will combine the reliability and power of solid rocket motors and the space shuttle main engines. The crew launch vehicle will be a single four-segment solid rocket motor with one shuttle main engine, which can lift 25 metric tons. The heavy cargo launch system will consist of two five-segment solid rockets and five shuttle main engines, which can boost 106 metric tons to orbit. A cargo-only mission could bring 21 metric tons of supplies to the moon.

Hanley anticipates the new spacecraft will be ready for its first launch in 2012, but he is challenging his team to have the spacecraft ready as soon as possible. “Our ideal is to make as small a gap as possible between the last shuttle flight [scheduled for 2010] and the first human flight of this system,” he said. “If we have things break our way and utilize good management practices in putting this together, I think we can do it.”

Hanley disagrees with the critics of NASA’s new program who say that returning to the moon is a waste of time and resources when the ultimate human destination is Mars, or perhaps other moons or asteroids. “That would be like the first explorers trying to circumnavigate the earth the first time they set out on the ocean,” he said. “That seems a little na?ve to me. The moon is three or four days away with the current rockets we have. Mars is months away. Once you light off the engines on the Mars transfer vehicle, there’s no turning back. You must have incredibly reliable systems to commit to those kinds of journeys.”

Hanley feels the only way to build up robustness and reliability of a spacecraft is through repeated use over time. “You’ve designed them, built them, and flown them over a period of time such that you’ve weeded out the ‘unknown unknowns,’ as we call them,” he said. “The moon gives us a natural platform to learn from when we get to the point when there’s no turning back from going to Mars.”

In addition, Hanley says, the exploration of other planets will only be successful if we learn to live off the land. “If you look in general at the history of exploration,” he said, “it wouldn’t have been possible without being able to live off the land. We have to learn how to use the available assets, like lunar soil and ice and convert that into rocket fuel and air, cultivating a way station, if you will, from which to test out systems for future exploration.”

Hanley believes that the successful international cooperation that has been forged through the International Space Station program should continue and expand through returning to the moon. “One of the unsung successes of the ISS program is the strong international team that has been cultivated,” he said. “The partnership has endured strains and come through them in great shape. The kinds of relationships and understandings we have today are a great basis on which to build more relationships for exploration.”

“Really,” he continued, “we have no choice but to partner with others to create a really robust program. NASA’s budget in the timeframe we are talking about just won’t be big enough to do all the things that possibly could be done, such as building habitats, rovers, and scientific stations. So there’s a huge opportunity for partners to come in and add value, robustness and capabilities.” Hanley said there have already been discussions at high levels with other space agencies on these matters.

The ISS has also been criticized as wasting time and resources, but Hanley feels everything that has been learned through the ISS program is invaluable. “What we eventually want to do at Mars,” he said, “is build an outpost off the planet. The ISS already is an outpost off the planet. We’ve learned an incredible amount in creating it, sustaining it, and it will, by its very nature, inform us of what the best approaches will be to take the next step.”

“Station is helping us to expand our horizons,” Hanley continued. “We’re learning through the engineering of our systems and cultivating our capabilities at that outpost, so we’re learning about how to rely less and less on supplies from the planet. We’re building heritage. And as soon as we learn the lessons we need to learn on the moon, we will be setting our sights on Mars and I don’t think that will be very long into the future.”

Written by Nancy Atkinson