back to article Crew Dragon returns to dry land as NASA promises new space station for the Moon

Having plucked a damp Dragon from the ocean, the rest of the week's space news was dominated by a tightening budget will see commercial space seeking a large slice of NASA's Moon pie. A bit less SLS NASA's FY2020 budget proposal arrived on 11 March, and amid the excitement over the potential for a fresh bootprint in the lunar …

  1. rdhood

    And with this mission, USSR/Russia is consigned to be the Portugal of the Space Race.

    Russia has not produced one successful serious space mission since the fall of the Soviet union. Their space program has been living off the $93million per astronaut that they charge to get to the space station. Their gravy train has just been obsoleted. The U.S., EU, Israel, Japan, and China have all made more serious advances in space in the last 20 years than Russia. Like Magellan, they were there first, but those glory days are gone.

    1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

      Re: And with this mission, USSR/Russia is consigned to be the Portugal of the Space Race.

      That could all change with a single ego-burst from Putin.

      1. RyokuMas Silver badge
        Stop

        Re: And with this mission, USSR/Russia is consigned to be the Portugal of the Space Race.

        "That could all change with a single ego-burst from Putin."

        Only if they can find another Sergei Koreolev to make it happen...

    2. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: And with this mission, USSR/Russia is consigned to be the Portugal of the Space Race.

      You're missing something... America is simply Russia's puppet (apparently). Any advances America might make are attributable to Mother Russia. Funding a presidential campaign is far cheaper than funding all that messy R&D

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: And with this mission, USSR/Russia is consigned to be the Portugal of the Space Race.

      Portugal - good analogy

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Why?

    Why is NASA persisting with the SLS? Falcon Heavy is already here and by the time SLS finally launches, I wouldn't be surprised if the SpaceX BFR (or whatever it is called by then) will already be launching.

    If they just scrapped SLS and bought launches, then the science budget could be massively boosted. NASA should stick to what it is good at. Probes and science.

    The SLS is a money pit whose primary purpose appears to be to pork barreling senators/congress persons rather than actually launching anything.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Why?

      >The SLS is a money pit whose primary purpose appears to be to pork barreling senators/congress

      S/SLS/NASA/r

      1. Baldrickk Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: Why?

        But it would have the highest lift capacity - greater than Falcon Heavy without recovery of any cores (draining them all dry purely for ascent)

    2. Kez

      Re: Why?

      I could be very wrong here, but as I understand it, the SLS upper stage engines in particular are much more efficient (higher specific impulse) than the Merlin engines in use on Falcon Heavy. The later iterations of SLS are intended to carry much larger payloads, much higher than Falcon Heavy is capable of - of particular concern to NASA, who want to launch large chunks (which may not fit in Falcon's payload fairing) of the new 'Lunar Gateway' in as few launches as possible. Of course by then, Space X may well have completed development on their methane-fueled Raptor engines, retro-fitted them to Falcon, or even have BFR in the skies.

      1. imanidiot Silver badge

        Re: Why?

        Retrofitting raptors to Falcon (Heavy) is something that has been brought up but was dismissed by Musk as not making sense. I'm sure things would change if NASA just came up and promised them a huge bag of money, but from a commercial standpoint it doesn't make sense as there are not enough deep space missions to make the re-engineering worth it.

      2. rg287 Silver badge

        Re: Why?

        I could be very wrong here, but as I understand it, the SLS upper stage engines in particular are much more efficient (higher specific impulse) than the Merlin engines in use on Falcon Heavy.

        Yes, this is an important consideration.

        The rocket with the highest "brute force" throw weight to LEO is not always the best if you want, say to launch a probe to Saturn. Sometimes a system with an ostensibly lower launch weight will actually offer a better "Deep Space" capability because the second stage is better optimised for those sorts of jobs.

        However, with the current crop of Falcon Heavy (ready) and the near-ready New Glenn, Vulcan and BFR, it seems like SLS's party-piece will be too little and too expensive. If you can launch a huge probe plus a hefty propulsion stage to LEO for on-orbit mating for less money than a single SLS launch, why not do that? Launch costs are falling so rapidly that it's soon going to be a viable option to launch heavy, multi-segment probes across a couple of launches and have a much more capable vehicle than trying to compromise everything onto one chassis because you can only afford one $600m launch vehicle.

        SLS is going to be too niche, far too expensive, and then StarShip will render it obsolete - able to lift far more mass and much larger volumes for lower cost.

    3. WonkoTheSane Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: Why?

      "The SLS is a money pit whose primary purpose appears to be to pork barreling senators/congress persons rather than actually launching anything."

      You answered your own question.

    4. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Why?

      "Why is NASA persisting with the SLS?"

      Well, apparently THAT is the entire issue here. Privatization by using Boeing and/or SpaceX rockets to do the trick is what we're going to get, apparently. And this is a GOOD thing. And, although NASA _does_ use private industry to develop things _like_ SLS, it seems that their way of designing new propulsion systems doesn't work very well any more. It's too slow, is filled with cost overruns and delays, and that's not going to cut it when people don't want to fund you with infinite funds.

      The original moon program had a goal and a time frame, and it was tied in with military technology for launching atomic weapons. That was THEN. NASA is now focused on science and research, not RESULTS, and both science AND research extend outwards indefinitely, _ESPECIALLY_ when "science" and "research" are the goal, and NOT _results_.

      That being said, NASA still has its purpose, especially for coordinating launches, setting standards, etc.. I think they do really well at those things.

      But yeah, let the FREE MARKET compete and produce launch systems that get us the RESULTS, because that's what the majority of citizens seem to want, RESULTS.

      [it's like fusion RESEARCH - you get what you pay for - RESEARCH. If it were fusion RESULTS that were being funded, we'd have power producing reactors by now]

      icon, because, irony

    5. 's water music Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Why?

      If they just scrapped SLS and bought launches, then the science budget could be massively boosted. NASA should stick to what it is good at. Probes and science.

      The SLS is a money pit whose primary purpose appears to be to pork barreling senators/congress persons rather than actually launching anything.

      Sadly, without that pork they might find their science budget massively cut...

    6. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge

      Re: Why?

      Redundancy. Imagine if there was only one viable passenger aircraft design available and you had to ground the fleet for safety concerns.

      There is a argument for treating the SLS consortium the same as SpaceX. Contract them for a specific set of missions, maybe pay a deposit, then let then raise the rest of the money themselves and compete for future missions.

  3. Conundrum1885 Bronze badge

    Re. SLS

    Yes, agreed. What SpaceX should do is run a test launch of their lunar lander.

    Also a CD/LM hybrid would solve a lot of the problems: its a tested design and valuable experience of in space docking could be tested.

    Run it uncrewed for the first test but soft landing on the Moon would be a huge step.

  4. Wexford

    "Having plucked a damp Dragon plucked from the ocean, the rest of the week's space news was dominated by a tightening budget will see commercial space seeking a large slice of NASA's Moon pie."

    Wow, if you tried really hard I bet you could have tortured that sentence even more.

    1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

      Besides which it's not moon pie it's moon cheese (don't forget the crackers).

      1. RyokuMas Silver badge
        Happy

        Cracking cheese, Grommit!

        1. WonkoTheSane Silver badge

          Wensleydale?

    2. Andy The Hat Silver badge

      I think you'll find the sentence was accurate.

      1) The Dragon had feathers before re-entry so on landing had obviously been plucked ... you can see the scorch marks left by burning off the fluffy bits.

      2) Commercial space is actually a privately owned financial vaccuum which sucks tax payer's money away from it's original target into private bank accounts, nothing to do with rockets.

    3. zuckzuckgo Bronze badge

      >Wow, if you tried really hard I bet you could have tortured that sentence even more.

      Not without violating some Geneva conventions.

  5. rg287 Silver badge

    NASA had, of course, planned to use the upgraded rocket to ferry components for its Lunar Gateway mini-space-station into orbit around the Moon. With the additional power now pushed to some unspecified point in the future, there is scope for commercial outfits, such as SpaceX, to take on more of that transportation duty.

    Even if the US Space Agency was less than keen on the idea back in 2018.

    As for the Lunar Gateway itself, the budget envisages getting the first module of the station into orbit around the Moon by 2022, with a power and propulsion unit going up first, and habitation and logistics elements following soon after. Crew could stay aboard the outpost from 2024, according to the proposal.

    Quite unlikely to happen. The entire point of Lunar Gateway was as a payload for SLS to launch and in support of the asteroid redirect project (another - now-dead - SLS-project), which is why it uses an utterly bizarre orbit. It was designed as a project that SLS - and only SLS - could fulfil, therefore justifying the further funding and development of the Senate Launch System. Which is why NASA hates it. They get stuck with a very expensive Lunar Station that's not actually much use for anything.

    If SLS (or the SLS upgrade) doesn't happen, Lunar Gateway won't happen - at least not in its current incarnation. What we might (hopefully!) get is a sensible staging post at the Earth-Moon L1 point which Lunar Landers or Transfer Vehicles can come and go from, along with other Deep Space Vehicles (e.g. Mars transfer vehicles). Probably provided cost-effectively by the private sector (SpaceX/BO/Bigelow) on a similar basis to the Commercial Crew programme.

    And we need to remember that the whole thing starts to look decidedly under-specced if Musk is successful in launching >100 people at a time on StarShip by 2025-30.

    Architectures built around 4-7 person capsules will become a bit cramped rather rapidly!

    1. Simon Harris Silver badge

      "And we need to remember that the whole thing starts to look decidedly under-specced if Musk is successful in launching >100 people at a time on StarShip by 2025-30."

      Even if Musk could launch >100 people at a time by 2025-2030 (that's only 6-11 years away), I'd be surprised if there was the infrastructure in space for that many people to have anywhere to go after they were launched.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
        Devil

        Simon Harris,

        Oh ye of little faith. If you can launch 100 people on a mission, then you've got your food and compost/biomass supplies for long-duration missions all in 100 easy self-loading packages. Then you just need the right seeds and soil bacteria and you've got oxygen and food generation sorted out for the survivors primary crew of 6.

        "Houston, we have a problem. OK don't worry, we now have a casserole."

        1. Simon Harris Silver badge

          @ I ain't Spartacus

          When do nominations open for the packed-lunches passengers?

      2. rg287 Silver badge

        Even if Musk could launch >100 people at a time by 2025-2030 (that's only 6-11 years away), I'd be surprised if there was the infrastructure in space for that many people to have anywhere to go after they were launched.

        Certainly, which is why architectures designed around SLS or "traditional" space thinking will be totally obsolete.

        The cargo version of StarShip will be vast compared with all that has gone before it. A few launches to provision Orbital/Lunar/Martian habitats will be more than sufficient to support those people.

        That's the point. With the capacity to launch 100 people, you gain the cargo capacity to sensibly support 100 people. Same as our current systems can support our current manned launches. Sure, he's not going to launch hundreds initially, because they would have nowhere to go. But they'll have the capability to do that, and if the cost-per-seat gets down to even 10x as much as Musk is aiming, corporations will be queuing up.

      3. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        "I'd be surprised if there was the infrastructure in space for that many people to have anywhere to go after they were launched."

        Just as aircraft capable of carrying 100 people can ALSO carry a few people [and a LOT of cargo], I would expect that the plans are to bring lots of 'people + cargo' for a few years to construct something _LIKE_ the '2001 A space Odyssey' spinny station. And at that point, it will make sense.

        You got to be a bit of a visionary to connect the dots.

  6. ratfox Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    I wonder if the people who think the first moon landings were a hoax are going to believe those.

    That said, what is the point of returning to the moon? I get the point of doing microgravity experiments on the ISS, but isn't the moon just a dead rock of no particular interest?

    1. Clive Galway

      > isn't the moon just a dead rock

      That is one of the plus points of the moon

      1) It's dead - no chance of destroying any indigenous life.

      2) It's close, but outside the worst of the gravity well

      3) It has a fair amount of water (Rocket fuel / oxygen)

      Therefore, we can strip mine the absolute buggery out of it, and no-one gives a toss

      1. Martin J Hooper

        > Therefore, we can strip mine the absolute buggery out of it, and no-one gives a toss

        What would happen to the tides and other earth based things based on having a moon up there if we strip mined it so it changed its mass?

        1. Clive Galway

          I am assuming this is a flippant comment, but whatever, I will honor it with a response anyway...

          AFAIK it may actually be desirable to do that, I seem to remember reading that eventually we will lose the moon as it is gradually moving further away.

          One would imagine that is because the mass (inertia) is higher than the gravitational hold the earth has on it, so lowering it's mass would keep it in orbit? Dunno, I may well be wrong on that.

          Whatever, I seriously doubt that we could ever mine it enough to make that much of a difference, and of course it would only apply to things we then removed from the moon (ie fuel) - we could mine all the resources we wanted if they stayed on the moon, and not change it's mass. In fact, the balance is currently the other way - at this point we have increased the mass of the moon by landing stuff on it that came from earth.

          Of course, the same also applies to earth - we are lightening the mass of that all the time by sending stuff into space that does not come back.

          1. John Mangan

            @Clive Galway

            True. But the daily infall of cosmic debris more than makes up for that.

        2. John Mangan

          I don't think as a race we are at the point where we can significantly change the mass of an object the size of the moon.

    2. rg287 Silver badge

      That said, what is the point of returning to the moon? I get the point of doing microgravity experiments on the ISS, but isn't the moon just a dead rock of no particular interest?

      Mining Helium-3 for fusion power. He3 is relatively abundant on the Moon compared to Earth. Probably not enough on it's own, but it's one well-considered potential industry.

      Additionally, mining materials for manufacturing in spaaaaaaace. Sooner or later, if we're serious about going to Mars (or anywhere else), it's going to become desirable to mine raw materials from asteroids and the Moon rather than launching out of Earth's gravity well.

      There's also a fair amount of water there, allowing us to sustain a base/colony.

      And as Clive Galway says, it's dead. So nobody is overly concerned about us contaminating it with terrestrial bacteria/life or damaging a native ecosystem (however primitive).

    3. MJB7 Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: what is the point of returning to the moon?

      Well we're at least 18 years late on uncovering the monolith, and the way things are going to looks like we are going to be at least 20 years late.

    4. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      coolness factor alone is a reason to go to the moon.

      Also, it's an un-mined resource of minerals. It's a fair bet someone will find gold, platinum, rare earth materials, and other (similar) things there. When it becomes financially viable to mine the moon, it will be mined. And the things we want will be a) closer to the surface, and b) unclaimed by governments so you don't have to deal with international politics to get to the resources and bring 'em home.

      1. Clive Galway

        I think it's going to be a long, long time until it is financially viable to mine stuff in space and sell it on earth, as surely you would need to be able to build the return vehicle in space, otherwise you need to factor in the cost of lifting the container into orbit

        1. Simon Harris Silver badge

          "otherwise you need to factor in the cost of lifting the container into orbit"

          Couldn't that be offset somewhat by filling it with things that need to go to the moon in the first place, making it more cost effective by using it on both legs of the trip?

          1. Clive Galway

            Unless you had no other use for that vehicle (eg bringing people back home), then it's still consuming a resource that could be used for something else.

            It also limits you to only bringing as much back as you sent up, which kind of destroys the whole economics of it. Surely for it to be viable, you would need to be able to bring back orders of magnitude more than you sent up.

            1. MrXavia

              The solution is quite simple...

              Electromagnetically launch the materials, parachutes to slow entry, low cost, no fuel needed, build the entry pod with materials available on the moon, ensure design can be fully dismantled and the materials re-purposed.

            2. Simon Harris Silver badge

              "Surely for it to be viable, you would need to be able to bring back orders of magnitude more than you sent up."

              Surely orders of magnitude in value, not necessarily volume. Earlier in the thread was the suggestion that precious and rare earth elements might be mined which might mean being able to pack a high value commodity into a smallish space if the extraction facilities could be built on the moon.

              I wouldn't have thought we'd need to send back huge quantities of moon-rock for general use - we've got plenty of rock on Earth already!

              1. Clive Galway

                Volume != mass

                If you pack a capsule intended for regular cargo (Food, water, meat bags etc) full of gold, it's gonna have a lot more mass than normal.

                One would imagine these things (eg the heat shield and chutes that slow it) would be rated for a certain mass, the volume is a constant. Then there's the increased fuel needed to get it off the moon, to the earth, and to de-orbit it

                1. Clive Galway

                  Gold is worth ~$40k per kg

                  A dragon capsule weighs ~4,200 kg and can return ~3,000 kg to earth.

                  Cost to put something on the moon is probably going to exceed $1m / kg (https://space.stackexchange.com/a/4724), so you made a loss just getting the container there.

  7. John Mangan

    Lunar Gateway Questions

    Won't the Lunar Gateway be well outside Earth's magnetic field? What's the likely radiation dose out there?

    Do the plans include some previously impractical/unavailable shielding for the meatsacks within?

    How long will people actually be able to stay there?

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: Lunar Gateway Questions

      as for radiation, consider this:

      a) a large tank of fuel or water would act as a radiation shield, so keep that oriented between the 'people tank' (aka living quarters) and the sun, and the radiation levels will be a LOT lower.

      b) it will be a great experiment on dealing with long term space exposure to ionizing radiation, how to minimize it, maybe even how to work WITH it

      A lot of people work in the nuclear industry and receive many times the average dosage of radiation that you get from living on the planet (around 100mrem per year, which is what , 1 milli-S or something). The legal limits used to be 50 times that amount for radiation workers, in the USA anyway. Worthy of mention, when I was on a sub underway my annual exposure was about 50% lower, even though I lived/worked within 100 feet of an operating nuclear reactor. All of that steel and the ocean itself was a pretty good radiation shield.

      So yeah given a properly designed space station, the presence of fuel tanks and water tanks and metal between you and the sun, and possible additional shielding on the living quartes, it should work pretty well.

      But yeah you'll get more radiation. Just monitor it, as is done in the nuclear industry, and keep it well below established limits, and everyone will be fine.

      1. John Mangan

        Re: Lunar Gateway Questions

        "a large tank of fuel or water" was what I was referring to in terms of previously impractical. Isn't this a lot of extra mass to move and not just into LEO but out to the Moon. Is that level of shielding realistic/practical and above all effective for all of the various radiation types provided by the cosmos?

        And as for 'the rest of their natural lives' that rather ignores the unpleasant effects of micro-gravity on the human organism.

        1. Baldrickk Silver badge

          Re: Lunar Gateway Questions

          Well, you'll be wanting the fuel and water regardless. It's more a case of where do you put it, rather than "lets take extra"

          1. John Mangan

            Re: Lunar Gateway Questions

            So far as I know (I'm prepared to be corrected) the ISS doesn't have sufficient water to provide this level of shielding so you would be taking extra.

            1. John Mangan

              Re: Lunar Gateway Questions

              It looks a bit more 'experimental' that I was expecting:

              "In addition, Gateway’s location will take it far outside Earth’s protective magnetic field and will leave astronauts exposed to far more intense radiation than is experienced on the ISS. This will provide key opportunities to study the long-term impact of radiation on humans in deep space. “We will ultimately translate that experience toward human missions to Mars,” says William Gerstenmaier, an associate administrator at Nasa headquarters in Washington."

              The full article I took that from is here:

              https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/sep/22/the-lunary-gateway-the-future-is-closer-than-you-thought-nasa-esa-orion-jaxa-mars-mission

              I won't be volunteering.

              Lovely graphics:

              https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/20181206-crusan-gateway-reduced-v4.pdf

    2. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

      Re: Lunar Gateway Questions

      How long will people actually be able to stay there?

      Factoring in a suitable dose of radiation, I'd say for the rest of their natural lives.

      1. DropBear Silver badge

        Re: Lunar Gateway Questions

        ...is that some kind of "set someone on fire and he'll be warm for the rest of his life" thing?

  8. Baldrickk Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    Am I the only one

    Who keeps reading "Crew Dragon" as "Dragon Crew" and thinking "but we didn't put anyone in it!"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Am I the only one

      "but we didn't put anyone in it!"

      It was too full of soup

  9. Jacob's Elevator

    PARIS: 'Hey, every one of these knobs and levers is fully functional.'

    TUVOK: "And completely superfluous."

    ST Voyager:

    'Extreme Risk'

    Stardate: Unknown..

    Thought you'd get a boost from this.

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