Tag Archives: Moon

Forty years since Armstrong’s one small step – where next?

Buzz Aldrin begins his moonwalkI’m too young to join in the first-hand reminiscences of the Moon landings, but it’s still an event that played a huge role in my imaginative development – as it doubtless did for many other geeks and science fiction fans. [image courtesy NASA]

I think the Apollo project’s biggest symbolism for me is that of the bitter ironies of human technological achievement: to have sent a man into space, had him walk on the Moon and come back safely is quite simply a staggering achievement by whatever metric you choose to use; to have only found the motivation and political will to do so because of a geopolitical/ideological pissing match is rather sad. And it’s that very motivation that ensured us never returning to Luna, as Tom Wolfe points out:

Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all. But then, on the morning after, congressmen began to wonder about something that hadn’t dawned on them since Kennedy’s oration. What was this single combat stuff — they didn’t use the actual term — really all about? It had been a battle for morale at home and image abroad. Fine, O.K., we won, but it had no tactical military meaning whatsoever. And it had cost a fortune, $150 billion or so. And this business of sending a man to Mars and whatnot? Just more of the same, when you got right down to it. How laudable … how far-seeing … but why don’t we just do a Scarlett O’Hara and think about it tomorrow?

And that NASA budget! Now there was some prime pork you could really sink your teeth into! And they don’t need it anymore! Game’s over, NASA won, congratulations. Who couldn’t use some of that juicy meat to make the people happy? It had an ambrosial aroma … made you think of re-election …

But hey – this site’s about the future, so let’s look forwards, eh? Former NASA administrator Alan Stern reckons that private industry is the future of spaceflight, and that sub-orbital tourism might be ubiquitous in another decade or so:

I think that when anyone can fly in space, rather than just those that governments choose to send in to space, it’s going to really revolutionize, not only how we look at it, but it’s going to be an accelerant to the desires to have even more of that.

The prices start off pretty high – it’s tens of millions of dollars to fly in space, but those prices will come down, and fly sub-orbitally, ticket prices are in the range of a couple hundred thousand dollars, but those are going to come down a lot to I think over time. I expect that 10 years from now, they’ll be a fraction of that.

And it turns out there may be another motivational force to pull us back to the Moon – if we ever manage to crack commercial fusion power generation, we’d be able to rake up a whole lot of fuel up there:

… the Moon’s soil is rich in helium-3, which comes from the outer layer of the Sun and is blown around the Solar System by solar winds. The element is rarely found on Earth, unlike on the Moon, where it is heavily accumulated because it is pushed away by the Earth’s magnetic poles.


Reserves of helium-3 on the Moon are in the order of a million tonnes, according to some estimates, and just 25 tonnes could serve to power the European Union and United States for a year.

That’s a whole lot of fuel… but it’s still a finite resource, and historically those tend to lead to trouble and strife of some sort as the world’s powers jostle for the biggest slice of the pie. At least if colonialism reaches the Moon there won’t be any natives to exploit introduce to civilisation…

… none that we know of, anyway.

Space is the place

CGI rendering of the International Space Station Thanks to the anniversary of the Apollo Moon landings, everyone’s talking about space at the moment – and it’s still as contentious and passionate a subject as ever. [image by FlyingSinger]

Charlie Stross looks back at the Moon landings and decides that despite the huge advances in technology since the 60s, NASA’s proposed Constellation Moon landing program is unlikely to come off:

Today we lack a vital resource that both Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev took for granted: thousands of engineers with the experience of designing, building, and launching new types of rocket in a matter of years or even months. We used to have them, but some time in the past 40 years they all retired. We’ve got the institutions and the data and the better technology, but we don’t have the experience those early pioneers had. And I’m betting that the process of rebuilding all that institutional competence is going to run over budget. While NASA’s Constellation program might work, and while it could deliver far more valuable lunar science than Apollo ever did, it will inevitably cost much more than NASA’s official estimates suggest, because it’s too big a project for today’s NASA — NASA, and indeed the entire space industrial sector in the USA, would have to grow, structurally, to make it work.

Elsewhere, Paul McAuley laments the ‘disposable space truck’ model of space flight, saying it’s:

like building an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic and setting fire to it when you reach New York.

Meanwhile, SpaceX have just completed their first commercial satellite launch, successfully putting a Malaysian Earth-imaging sat into orbit.

SpaceX landed a NASA contract for hauling cargo up to the ISS some time ago, but it looks like they won’t be able to rely on that as a long-term entry on the balance sheet, as Bruce Sterling points to an article in the Washington Post wherein NASA’s space program manager announces the controversial plan to de-orbit (and hence destroy) the International Space Station when the budget runs out in 2016:

Suffredini raised some eyebrows when, at a public hearing last month, he declared flatly that the plan is to de-orbit the station in 2016. He addressed his comments to a panel chaired by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine that is charged by the Obama administration with reviewing the entire human spaceflight program. Everything is on the table — missions, goals, rocket design. And right there in the mix is this big, fancy space laboratory circling the Earth from 220 miles up.

The cost of the station is both a liability and, paradoxically, a virtue. A figure commonly associated with the ISS is that it will ultimately cost the United States and its international partners about $100 billion. That may add to the political pressure to keep the space laboratory intact and in orbit rather than seeing it plunging back to Earth so soon after completion.

Apparently physicist and vocal space critic Robert Park suggests palming off the money-eating white elephant on the Chinese instead. I’d have thought auctioning it off to the highest bidder would have made more sense, and I’m pretty sure there’s be some interested parties – China included, but plenty of non-state parties also.

And finally, via Warren Ellis comes something for flicking your geek switches – HFradio.org can supply you with space weather updates via Twitter. As Ellis remarks, “it’s like the Shipping Forecast for space”… now all we need is a way to convert it to an audio stream. Anyone got a zero-g Nabaztag?

Romania’s balloon-launch moonshot

The MoonIt’s been a while since space exploration was the sole province of national behemoths like NASA, despite the relative infancy of the commercial space sector. A small budget might prevent you from launching human payloads, but there’s still plenty of options at the bottom end of the funding scale… along with some tantalising enticements for an outfit with big dreams[image by ComputerHotline]

Romanian company ARCA is one such outfit, and they’re taking a stab at the Google-funded Lunar X Prize using comparatively cheap and simple technology:

a balloon that can carry ARCA’s European Lunar Explorer (ELE) space probe into the upper atmosphere, eliminating the need for a traditional launch pad and allowing ARCA to launch close to the equator from a sea platform. The “0” pressure balloon design is similar to a giant black hot-air balloon that uses solar energy to heat the air inside, instead of the burner that normal hot-air balloons use.

Once the balloon soars above 11 miles (18 km), the three-stage rocket slung below will fire and boost itself into low Earth orbit. ELE will then travel to the moon and deploy its Lunar Lander, which resembles a knobby rubber ball that uses its own rocket engine to ensure a soft landing.

ARCA’s lander itself isn’t really designed to do much when (or rather if) it arrives on the Lunar surface; because of the way the X Prize is defined, reaching the Moon is more important than achieving anything there. But as with most private space-launch initiatives, it’s all about proof-of-concept – once they know they can make the journey, they can start thinking about what to cart along next time.

Balloon-launch projects always remind me of Zion Cluster from William Gibson’s early novels, which – if I remember correctly – was colonised by exactly this sort of cheap-and-cheerful bootstrap approach.

Garden on the moon

grand-lunar“The Selene Gardening Society,” anybody? Two corporations want to grow vegetables and flowers in a bell jar-like miniature laboratory greenhouse on the moon.

The “Lunar Oasis” has a certain poetry going for it.  “Imagine a bright flower or a plant in a crystal clear growth chamber on the surface of the Moon, with the full Earth rising above the Moonscape behind it...” says Paragon Space Development founder and Biosphere 2 veteran Jane Poynter. Plants have never been grown in a fraction of Earth’s gravity.

Candidates for the experiment besides flowers include aquatic plants and also the unpoetic brassica family (which includes cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts).  The garden could be sprouting as early as 2012.The project is a contender for the Google’s $30 million lunar robotics prize.

H.G. Wells, Pierre Boulle, Steve Erikson, and presumably Busby Berkeley must be smiling.

[Image: Grand Lunar (OK, U.S. Rep.) Gabrielle Giffords with lunar greenhouse prototype, Paragon Space Development]

Maglev + space elevators + Moon = Big Dumb Object

moonA classic Big Dumb Object is discussed in Short Sharp Science: a space elevator combined with a maglev launcher to propel prospective lunar colonists into orbit:

The lunar elevator doesn’t actually reach the regolith. Instead, the elevator ribbon ends 10 kilometres shy of the lunar surface so that no lunar mountain peaks hit the end, or terminus, of the orbiting elevator.

So how do astronauts make that 10 km jump to the elevator’s dangling tail? Easy: as the terminus passes overhead, they are fired in a magnetically levitated train along a track that’s been laid across the lunar plain and which gradually eases upwards to become vertical.

If they are fired at just the right time – and I wouldn’t like to be the person specifying or writing the software to do that, they are caught by some kind of robotic grappler at the terminus, which attaches the train to the ribbon.

[image from Hamed Saber on flickr]