We bid a reluctant but truly fond farewell today to Michael Collins. The NASA astronaut passed away at the age of 90 on April 28, 2021. Collins flew on the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969, and also on Gemini 10 in 1966.
As Command Module Pilot, Collins was the lone member of the Apollo 11 crew who remained in orbit while his fellow astronauts became the first to land and walk on the Moon. But his endearing nature means he will be most remembered for his wit and humor, his passion and humbleness, his unflappable demeanor, his thoughtful contemplations, and the inspiring words he left behind as a writer of several books.
As part of Project Artemis, which was announced in May of 2019, NASA will be sending the first woman and the next man to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. To make this happen, NASA has partnered with the private aerospace industry to develop all the necessary systems. At the same time, NASA has entered into collaborative agreements with other space agencies to ensure that lunar exploration is open to all.
To formalize these agreements and ensure that all parties are committed to the same goals, NASA recently drafted a framework for cooperative lunar exploration and development. Known as the Artemis Accords, this series of bilateral agreements (which are grounded in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967) establish common principles for international partners who want to become part of humanity’s long-awaited return to the Moon.
It’s July 16th, 1969. The Apollo 11 crew have completed their training, and they’re in the Columbia Command Module atop a Saturn V rocket, to this day the most powerful rocket ever built. At 9:32 EDT the rocket lifts off, delivering the crew into Earth orbit 12 minutes after launch.
During the development of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) by the MIT Instrumentation Laboratory (see Part 1 and Part 2 for the complete backstory), an inauspicious event occurred sometime during 1965-1966, while the Gemini missions were going on.
The Gemini program helped NASA get ready for the Apollo Moon landings missions by testing out rendezvous and other critical techniques and technologies. Ten crews flew missions in Earth orbit on the two-person Gemini spacecraft.
In accordance with Space Policy Directive-1 – which was issued on December 11th, 2017 – NASA is busy developing all the necessary hardware to return astronauts to the Moon. On March 26th, 2019, NASA was officially directed to expedite the process and land the first astronauts of the post-Apollo era around the lunar South Pole by 2024. This mission is named Project Artemis, who is the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.
The 50th anniversary of You-Know-What is coming up and LEGO is getting in on the celebration. The much-beloved company has released a replica of the Apollo 11 Eagle Lunar Lander. The new lander is part of LEGO’s Creator Expert collection.
LEGO teamed up with NASA on this effort, and the model boasts quite a few realistic touches.
After years of preparation, SpaceX is gearing up for the inaugural launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket. As the name would suggest, this rocket is the heaviest launch vehicle in the SpaceX arsenal. With a payload capacity of 54 metric tons (119,000 lbs), it can lift over twice as much weight of the next heaviest launch vehicle (the ULA’s Delta IV Heavy). And in time, SpaceX hopes to use this rocket to send astronauts into orbit, to the Moon, and on to Mars.
Basically, the Falcon Heavy is integral to SpaceX’s mission to usher in an age of affordable space travel and restoring domestic launch capability to the United States. With the inaugural launch scheduled to take place no earlier than January of 2018, the company is currently putting the final touches on the rocket. This includes releasing pictures of the payload which will be sent into space, which is none other than Elon Musk’s own cherry-red Tesla Roadster.
The inaugural launch will take place at SpaceX’s Launch Complex 39A, which is located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This same launch pad was where the historic Apollo 11 mission launched from on July 16th, 1969, sending the first astronauts to the Moon. After it launches, the rocket will send send a payload into a heliocentric solar orbit, which will put it at a distance that is about the same as Mars’ distance from the Sun.
In addition, the company will use this inaugural launch to attempt a landing of all three of the Falcon 9 engine cores, which make up the first stage of the Falcon Heavy. In the past, the company has demonstrated its ability to successfully land the first stages of Falcon 9 rockets on land and at sea. However, this will be the first time that multiple cores are recovered from a single launch.
It will also demonstrate that SpaceX is capable of reusing all stages of a heavy launch, bringing it a step closer to fulfilling its promise to reduce costs by developing fully-reusable rockets. Two of the rocket cores will land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station while the third will land on SpaceX’s drone ship (Of Course I Still Love You) out in the Atlantic Ocean.
NASA is also offering offering viewing opportunities of the launch to the public at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. In the past, Musk has proposed sending some truly odd things into space, including a wheel of cheese. On December 1st of this year, Musk tweeted that for this momentous occasion, the special cargo would be one of his very own electric cars. As he posted on Twitter:
Payload will be my midnight cherry Tesla Roadster playing Space Oddity. Destination is Mars orbit. Will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.
Last week, SpaceX released photos of the Tesla Roadster being loaded aboard the rocket’s payload fairing. Forthe purposes of launching it into space, the Roadster has been mounted on a special adapter structure, which are typically used when launching satellites into orbit. The photos also showed the Roadster being enclosed inside the rocket’s payload fairing, which will carry the car into space and place it at its heliocentric orbit.
Musk naturally avoided making any predictions about the launch, saying only that the launch was “Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another.” However, when asked about his choice of cargo, Musk was both candid and cheeky in his response, tweeting:
“I love the thought of a car drifting apparently endlessly through space and perhaps being discovered by an alien race millions of years in the future.”
One can only imagine what they will conclude about humans. Perhaps that they were are both environmentally friendly and pretty flashy! While the exact date of the launch is still yet to be determined, Musk is certainly correct in predicting that it will be an exciting event. Given the sheer significance of this flight, the eyes of the world will be firmly fixed on Launch Complex 39A when it does take place.
Good luck SpaceX! And good luck to you too little Roadster!
In the coming decades, NASA has some rather bold plans for space exploration. By the 2030s, they hope to mount their “Journey to Mars“. a crewed mission that will see astronauts traveling beyond Earth for the first time since the Apollo era. At the same time, private companies and organizations like SpaceX and MarsOne are hoping to start colonizing Mars within a decade or so.
According to Chris Hadfield, these mission concepts are all fine and good. But as he explained in a recent interview, our efforts should be focused on renewed exploration of the Moon and the creation of a lunar settlement before we do the same for Mars. In this respect, he is joined by organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), and others.
When it comes to establishing a base on the Moon, the benefits are rather significant. For starters, a lunar outpost could serve as a permanent research base for teams of astronauts. In the same respect, it would present opportunities for scientific collaboration between space agencies and private companies – much in the same way the International Space Station does today.
On top of that, a lunar outpost could serve as a refueling station, facilitating missions deeper into the Solar System. According to estimates prepared by NexGen Space LLC (a consultant company for NASA), such a base could cut the cost of any future Mars missions by about $10 billion a year. Last, but not least, it would leverage key technologies that have been developed in recent years, from reusable rockets to additive manufacturing (aka. 3D printing).
And as Chris Hadfield stated in an interview with New Scientist, there are also a number of practical reasons for back to the Moon before going to Mars – ranging from distance to the development of “space expertise”. For those interested in science and space exploration, Chris Hadfield has become a household name in recent years. Before becoming an astronaut, he was a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and flew missions for NORAD.
After joining the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 1992, he participated in two space missions – STS-74 and STS-100 in 1995 and 2001, respectively – as a Mission Specialist. These missions involved rendezvousing with the Russian space station Mir and the ISS. However, his greatest accomplishment occurred in 2012, when he became the first Canadian astronaut to command an ISS mission – Expedition 35.
During the course of this 148-day mission, Hadfield attracted significant media exposure due to his extensive use of social media to promote space exploration. In fact, Forbes described Hadfield as “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth”. His promotional activities included a collaboration with Ed Robertson of The Barenaked Ladies and the Wexford Gleeks, singing “Is Somebody Singing?“(I.S.S.) via Skype.
The broadcast of this event was a major media sensation, as was his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, which he sung shortly before departing the station in May 2013. Since retiring from the Canadian Space Agency, Hadfield has become a science communicator and advocate for space exploration. And when it comes to the future, he was quite direct in his appraisal that the we need to look to the Moon first.
According to Hadfield, one of the greatest reasons for establishing a base on the Moon has to do with its proximity and the fact that humans have made this trip before. As he stated:
“With long-haul space exploration there is a whole smorgasbord of unknowns. We know some of the threats: the unreliability of the equipment, how to provide enough food for that length of time. But there are countless others: What are the impacts of cosmic rays on the human body? What sort of spacecraft do you need to build? What are the psychological effects of having nothing in the window for months and months? And going to a place that no one has ever been before, that can’t be discounted.”
In that, he certainly has a point. At their closest – i.e. when it is at “opposition with the Sun”, which occurs approximately every two years – Mars and Earth are still very far from each othre. In fact, the latest closest-approach occurred in 2003, when the two planets were roughly 56 million km (33.9 million miles) apart. This past July, the planets were again at opposition, where they were about 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles) apart.
During this time, astronauts would not only be subjected to a great deal of cosmic radiation, they would have to contend with the affects of microgravity. As studies that have been conducted aboard the ISS that have shown, long-term exposure to a microgravity environment can lead to losses in bone density, muscular atrophy, diminished eyesight, and organ damage.
Recent studies have also shown that exposure to radiation while on the surface of Mars would be quite significant. During its journey to Mars, the Curiosity rover recorded that it was subjected to average dose of 1.8 millisieverts (mSv) per day from inside its spaceship – the Mars Science Laboratory. During its first three hundred days on the surface, it was exposed to about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day.
This is about half and one-fifth (respectively) of what people are exposed to during an average here on Earth. While this falls outside of NASA’s official guidelines, it is still within the guidelines of other space agencies. But to make matter worse, a new study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, concluded that exposure to cosmic rays could cause cell damage that would spread to other cells in the body, effectively doubling the risk of cancer.
The risks of going to the Moon, in contrast, are easy to predict. Thanks to the Apollo missions, we know that it takes between two and three days to travel from the Earth to the Moon. The Apollo 11 mission, for example, launched from the Cape Kennedy on July 16th, 1969, and arrived in lunar orbit by July 19th, 1969 – spending a total of 51 hours and 49 minutes in space. Astronauts conducting this type of mission would therefore be subject to far less radiation.
Granted, the surface of the Moon is still exposed to significant amounts of radiation since the Moon has no atmosphere to speak of. But NASA estimates that walls which are 2.5 meters in thickness (and made from lunar regolith) will provide all the necessary shielding to keep astronauts or colonists safe. Another good reason to go to the Moon first, according to Hadfield, is because expertise in off-world living is lacking.
“There are six people living on the International Space Station, and we have had people there continuously for nearly 17 years,” he said. “But the reality is we have not yet figured out how to live permanently off-planet. So I think if we follow the historically driven pattern then the moon would be first. Not just to reaffirm that we can get there, but to show that we can also live there.”
But perhaps the best reason to settle the Moon before moving onto Mars has to do with the fact that exploration has always been about taking the next step, and then the next. One cannot simply leap from one location to the next, and expect successful results. What are required is baby-steps. And in time, sufficient traction can be obtained and the process will build up speed, enabling steps that are greater and more far-reaching. Or as Hadfield put it:
“For tens of thousands of years humans have followed a pattern on Earth: imagination, to technology-enabled exploration, to settlement. It’s how the first humans got to Australia 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, and how we went from Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd orbiting Earth to the first people putting footprints on the moon, to people living in orbit.
Based on this progression, one can therefore see why Hadfield and others beleive that the next logical step is to return to the Moon. And once we establish a foothold there, we can then use it to launch long-range missions to Mars, Venus, and beyond. Incremental steps that eventually add up to human beings setting foot on every planet, moon, and larger body in the Solar System.
On the subject of lunar colonization, be sure to check out our series on Building a Moon Base, by Universe Today’s own Ian O’Neill.
Top NASA officials outlined the details of the study at a hastily arranged media teleconference briefing on Friday, Feb 24. It will examine the feasibility of what it would take to add a crew of 2 astronauts to significantly modified maiden SLS/Orion mission hardware and whether a launch could be accomplished technically and safely by the end of 2019.
On Feb. 15, Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that he had asked Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, to start detailed studies of what it would take to host astronauts inside the Orion capsule on what the agency calls Exploration Mission-1, or EM-1.
Gerstenmaier, joined by Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development in Washington, at the briefing said a team was quickly assembled and the study is already underway.
They expect the study to be completed in early spring, possibly by late March and it will focus on assessing the possibilities – but not making a conclusion on whether to actually implement changes to the current uncrewed EM-1 flight profile targeted for blastoff later in 2018.
“I want to stress to you this is a feasibility study. So when we get done with this we won’t come out with a hard recommendation, one way or the other,” Gerstenmaier stated.
“We’re going to talk about essentially the advantages and disadvantages of adding crew to EM-1.”
“We were given this task a week ago, appointed a team and have held one telecon.”
“Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket,” said Gerstenmaier.
“This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”
Gerstenmaier further stipulated that the study should focus on determining if a crewed EM-1 could liftoff by the end of 2019. The study team includes one astronaut.
If a change resulted in a maiden SLS/Orion launch date stretching beyond 2019 it has little value – and NASA is best to stick to the current EM-1 flight plan.
The first SLS/Orion crewed flight is slated for Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) launching in 2021.
“I felt that if we went much beyond 2019, then we might as well fly EM-2 and actually do the plan we’re on,” Gerstenmaier said.
NASA’s current plans call for the unmanned blastoff of Orion EM-1 on the SLS-1 rocket later next year on its first test flight on a 3 week long mission to a distant lunar retrograde orbit. It is slated to occur roughly in the September to November timeframe from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.
Lightfoot initially revealed the study in a speech to the Space Launch System/Orion Suppliers Conference in Washington, D.C. and an agency wide memo circulated to NASA employees on Feb. 15 – as I reported here.
The Orion EM-1 capsule is currently being manufactured at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at the Kennedy Space Center by prime contractor Lockheed Martin.
To launch astronauts, Orion EM-1 would require very significant upgrades since it will not have the life support systems, display panels, abort systems and more needed to safely support humans on board.
“We know there are certain systems that needed to be added to EM-1 to add crew,” Gerstenmaier elaborated. “So we have a good, crisp list of all the things we would physically have to change from a hardware standpoint.
In fact since EM-1 assembly is already well underway, some hardware already installed would have to be pulled out in order to allow access behind to add the life support hardware and other systems, Hill explained.
The EM-1 pressure shell arrived last February as I witnessed and reported here.
Thus adding crew at this latter date in the manufacturing cycle is no easy task and would absolutely require additional time and additional funding to the NASA budget – which as everyone knows is difficult in these tough fiscal times.
“Then we asked the team to take a look at what additional tests would be needed to add crew, what the additional risk would be, and then we also wanted the teams to talk about the benefits of having crew on the first flight,” Gerstenmaier explained.
“It’s going to take a significant amount of money, and money that will be required fairly quickly to implement what we need to do,” Hill stated. “So it’s a question of how we refine the funding levels and the phasing of the funding for the next three years and see where it comes out.”
Hill also stated that NASA would maintain the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion stage for the first flight, and not switch to the more advanced and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) planned for first use on EM-2.
Furthermore NASA would move up the AA-2 ascent abort test for Orion to take place before crewed EM-1 mission.
Components of the SLS-1 rocket are being manufactured at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and elsewhere around the country by numerous suppliers.
Michoud is building the huge fuel liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen SLS core stage fuel tank, derived from the Space Shuttle External Tank (ET) – as I detailed here.
Gerstenmaier noted that Michoud did suffer some damage during the recent tornado strike which will necessitate several months worth of repairs.
The 2018 launch of NASA’s Orion on the unpiloted EM-1 mission counts as the first joint flight of SLS and Orion, and the first flight of a human rated spacecraft to deep space since the Apollo Moon landing era ended more than 4 decades ago.
SLS is the most powerful booster the world has even seen – even more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V moon landing rocket of the 1960s and 1970s.
For SLS-1 the mammoth booster will launch in its initial 70-metric-ton (77-ton) Block 1 configuration with a liftoff thrust of 8.4 million pounds.
If NASA can pull off a 2019 EM-1 human launch it will coincide with the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 – NASA’s first lunar landing mission manned by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, along with Michael Collins.
If crew are added to EM-1 it would essentially adopt the mission profile currently planned for Orion EM-2.
“If the agency decides to put crew on the first flight, the mission profile for Exploration Mission-2 would likely replace it, which is an approximately eight-day mission with a multi-translunar injection with a free return trajectory,” said NASA. It would be similar to Apollo 8 and Apollo 13.
Orion is designed to send astronauts deeper into space than ever before, including missions to the Moon, asteroids and the Red Planet.
NASA is developing SLS and Orion for sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s.
They are but the first hardware elements required to carry out such an ambitious initiative.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.