It’s been more than 40 years since humans first set foot on the Moon. But plans are in place to return humans to the surface of the Moon, and maybe even to asteroids and the planet Mars. New rockets, landers and flight technology are all under development. Humans are pushing out into space again, and this time we’re going to stay. Let’s take a look at NASA’s new Constellation Program. What’s been developed so far, and what’s coming up.
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Fraser Cain: You’re back from another couple of trips and we’re once again recording on schedule.
Dr. Pamela Gay: I only have two more trips to do to you. I will be at Dragon*Con.
Fraser: That’s the important one.
Pamela: At Dragon*Con there will be a Star Party for Cancer to raise money in honor of Jeff Medkeff who was the blue-collar scientist.
Fraser: Also just to mention last week we talked about Facebook and Twitter and I was expecting a flurry of Facebook friends but both Pamela and I have Facebook pages. Feel free to friend us.
I barely use mine. Pamela uses hers all the time. Same deal with Twitter feeds, Pamela uses her Twitter like crazy; I barely [laughter] send any tweets. We have them and subscribe to them and maybe at some point people can make some suggestions.
This week it has been more than 40 years since humans last set foot on the moon. Plans are in place to return humans to the surface of the moon and maybe even to asteroids and the planet Mars. New rockets, landers and flight technology are all under development.
Humans are pushing out into space again and this time we’re going to stay. Let’s take a look at NASA’s new Constellation Program, what’s been developed so far and what’s coming up. Hopefully most people sort of know where the Constellation Program came from but why don’t we kind of refresh everyone’s memory. What is it?
Pamela: This is one of these times where we have to thank President Bush.
Fraser: Thanks President Bush.
Pamela: George W. Bush on February 4, 2003 said that “the cause of exploration and discovery is not an option we choose. It is a desire written in the human heart”. With these words and later he went on and January 14, 2004 to say “Americans will make these words come true”.
He set forward a new ideal for NASA that was funded – which is always a good thing that we were going to put men back on the moon by 2020.
Fraser: And women, people, humans!
Pamela: And women – I’m using generic. Sorry, humans put humans back on the moon by 2020, and to look out beyond the moon, Mars, the asteroids and to build with that larger vision in place. With this Congress and the Congress budgetary office started figuring out what needs to happen. How do we keep NASA growing and looking out to new human horizons of exploration?
We can’t do it with the space shuttle. The space shuttle doesn’t really get very far off the planet. It gets about 300 miles up. That’s a hair’s breadth away from the surface when you start looking at how far away the moon is from the planet Earth.
We need something that can lift heaver weight, that can lift humans – not necessarily the same spacecraft to do both – and we have to retire our nice friendly pick-up truck of a space shuttle in order to fund this new vision of exploration. That’s okay because the space shuttle was only supposed to make it to the year 2000. It just kept going like the pick-up truck that never dies.
Fraser: Or Hubble.
Pamela: Or Hubble.
Fraser: We’ve got the space shuttle being phased out. They put a hard date on that right? It’s the end of 2010.
Pamela: Yes and we still don’t know if that’s for certain. People are fighting the 2010 deadline because part of our new vision of space exploration requires us to not start from scratch in building rockets but to build something completely new out of the pieces we’ve got.
The new set of rockets they’re looking at, Ares I and the Ares V, we haven’t even tested one of them yet. We’re looking to do that end of August but we haven’t even tested one of them yet. You have to get them human ready.
What we’re looking at right now is we’re going to retire the space shuttle at the end of 2010 and we’re hoping that no later than March 2015 we’ll have humans into orbit on the top of an Ares I rocket.
That’s five years that NASA has to figure out how to support the International Space Station while our government-funded space agency doesn’t have a mechanism to get anyone up to the International Space Station.
Fraser: Currently, the space shuttle is the only human-rated vehicle for launching people up to the space station.
Pamela: In the United States.
Fraser: Yeah, exactly. There are really only two other options. There are the Russians and the Chinese.
Pamela: Or the commercial space agency.
Fraser: But they don’t have a human-rated rocket yet.
Pamela: Yeah they’re still working on it too. What’s unknown is if they’re going to get there before NASA does. The reason that they might be able to get there first is NASA is building a suite of spacecraft that work together.
If you’re working in isolation, if you’re building something strictly for your own needs or for one specific goal, you can go a lot faster. You can work in a much more streamlined fashion.
With the combination Ares I – Ares V system they’re building rockets that in some cases have interchangeable parts. They’re both building on the technology used to build the solid rocket boosters for the current space shuttle.
They’re incorporating that same technology into the new launch vehicle so that they can build all the parts in one factory. They’re also making it so that you launch humans on the Ares I and you launch stuff on the Ares V. You have to figure out how to rendezvous these two spacecraft in orbit.
Fraser: Right this is for safety reasons? This is what we saw was the tragic failure of the space shuttle design is that you’re carrying cargo and humans together on a very dangerous vehicle. We saw the loss of Challenger and the loss of Columbia showed the catastrophic failure that can happen.
In this situation you’ve got the Ares I which is really well rated, very safe – as safe as a rocket can be that’s great for carrying humans and that’s it. Then you’ve got the Ares V which is built with less safety issues and can carry huge amounts of cargo up into space.
Once you get up in space humans and cargo will meet and will dock together and away the spaceship will go. I like it a lot. I like it because you’ve got Ares I has so many redundancies, so many ejection systems, so many ways to bail out. It has very tried and true technology. Ares V is going to be a monster. [Laughter]
Pamela: It’s the same size pretty much as the Saturn V.
Fraser: It’s got a larger launch capacity than Saturn V, doesn’t it?
Pamela: That’s the thing is you stick them side-to-side and they’re about the same height. When you start looking at that little ejection bit on the top of the Saturn V that was used if they had to grab the nosecone filled with people and launch it separate from the rest of the rocket because something is going horribly wrong, that little extra bit makes the Saturn V a nose bit taller.
When you look at them side-by-side the Ares V has the two extra side rockets like we have on the space shuttle. The two solid rocket boosters on either side of the main fuel tank and it is all fuel. Where the Saturn V got narrower as you got up, it’s one large giant column ready to be filled with cargo.
The Saturn V could launch about 118,000 pounds whereas with the Ares V we’re looking at 188,000 pounds. That’s a good difference. The Ares V is going to be able to get a 5ish percent command module of stuff into space to meet up with the human beings going up on the Ares I. That’s going to allow much larger crews to land on the moon.
Fraser: That’s 85,000 kilograms is the launch mass.
Pamela: A hundred and 88 tons is the maximum payload capacity to low Earth orbit. If we’re then looking to go to the moon it has 71 tons to the moon because you need more fuel.
Fraser: The cool thing about this is that with the Ares V you’ve got the capacity to launch not just to the moon you could go to asteroids. Ifis correct that’s enough to get you to Mars and back.
It could also be used for launching commercial satellites. I think of all of the development the Ares V is the one that is just the raw technology upgrade that gives so much potential for space exploration.
It could be used for anything. You can put a ton of weight, amazing space telescopes, incredible landers, rovers the mind just boggles. I’m really looking forward to the development of the Ares V.
Pamela: The thing that really did it for me is I saw a NASA presentation where they were talking about the future of space telescopes. One of the things that we really struggle against right now is when we’re building things to put into space they have to be super, super lightweight.
Ounces instead of pounds when you can start comparing space systems to Earth-based systems, they have to be extremely fuel efficient. There is no extra from Earth to orbit fuel to launch the fuel needed to get to Mars.
We could right now if we wanted to take Gemini, one of the largest Geminis – north or south pick either one – one of the largest telescopes in the world, plunk it in the cargo area of the Ares V and off she goes.
Fraser: Right [laughter] there you go – space telescope.
Pamela: Exactly we don’t even have to worry about thinning the mirrors. We don’t have to worry about using special fold-out anything just put it in the cargo hold. Now it’s not going to have any mechanisms to control it, but it would fit. It would work. It would launch.
Fraser: Yes, space telescope. Problem solved – done.
Pamela: Yes, useless space telescope if you launch Gemini but it amuses me nonetheless.
Fraser: So I think people are starting to kind of wrap their heads around this. We’ve got these two rockets there, Ares I and Ares V. Ares I launches up, crew onboard, maybe they go to the International Space Station. Maybe they just go in orbit.
The Ares V launches up with whatever you want, lunar landers, lunar base, and Mars rovers. They dock in orbit, the excess parts all blow away and you’re left with some kind of vehicle which will then go to the destination.
The destination that is really being talked about most is the moon. How is this all going to work?
Pamela: What’s neat is this all feels like plug ‘n play space technology. You have the Ares I which the lower segments of its engines are basically identical to the solid rocket boosters we currently use on the space shuttle.
We’re just reusing technology. It is five segments, reusable. It is tested through the space shuttle program. We know how to make these and factories exist. The upper part is then based on Saturn technology. We took the old Saturn I – these J2S engines and we brought them into the 20th century or hopefully the 21st century.
Those are then used on liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen upper set of stages. It launches, it launches, it launches and it gets to orbit and then either goes on rendezvous with the International Space Station or it rendezvous with whatever came up on a parallel flight of an Ares V.
This is where the cool plug ‘n play part comes in. The Ares V has two solid rocket boosters on either side of it that are again these exact same engines that were used on the space shuttle that are being used on the Ares I. They launch straight up.
They started off planning to use space shuttle engines but realized that they could actually build much better engines that were much more efficient. They’re still working on the engine designs, finalizing everything.
They also have for the main parts of this a central booster that has multiple booster separation motors. It goes up, goes into different parts a lot like the Saturn V did. They’re actually again reusing the J2S simplified version of the Saturn 1B engines as they launch with the big Ares rocket.
You have in different numbers in different compositions on both the Ares I and the Ares V – the exact same pieces. You put more pieces together you get to either heavier stuff in space or you get to a higher orbit. It’s just kind of cool. It’s Legos of spacecraft.
Fraser: Right but let’s talk about the cargo part. Let’s talk about what’s going to go to the moon.
Pamela: This is where we have the Altera program. There are some neat, not-to-scale artist’s renderings on the NASA website that what’s cool is the new command module that they have. It is kind of traveling in luxury.
It is still cramped; you’re still in space suits but it now has its own solar arrays so you have more power as you’re flying to the moon. It docks itself up with the Altera lander which is basically a three-story habitat that you land on the moon and you’re set with all of your supplies for you and a bunch of your buddies for about a week.
The original idea is you go, you land, you stay put and explore. They’re working on developing a rover. It looks a lot like a bug right now. It has this forward crew cabin that’s all windows. It really looks like the head of an ant. Back behind it is a much more cylindrical habitat where you go and sleep and stuff. It looks kind of like the body of an ant. It has a ton of wheels.
You land the Altera, go off and explore with your little rover that might have landed ahead of you. They’re still working out those details. Then you come home. In a way you start and end with your mission the same way.
It used to be with the Apollo you and your lander all fly from Earth to orbit to the moon in one piece. Making the system a little bit more complex – which I know makes some people nervous – with the new system, you take off in your rocket, and your lander takes off in its rocket. You dock in outer space.
You go to the moon, land on the moon, take back off, rendezvous potentially again with whatever is needed to get you back to Earth. Then you land. There’s more work but we can get more weight.
Eventually the idea is we’ll also start building stuff on the moon. The first thing that we’re set to build which is part of an international collaboration is a communications network.
We’ll be putting a string of relay nodes out across the surface of the moon. Then hopefully more permanent habitats are to follow.
Fraser: I think that’s the key difference. This time around the plan is to stay. To figure out how to live on the moon for not permanently but in the same way that astronauts are at the space station.
You’re not going to walk around, take a few steps and then pick up some rocks, shoot a few golf balls and then get back in your lander and take off. There is going to be over time a permanent research station on the moon that astronauts will go and stay for extended periods of time, right Pamela?
Pamela: This is where the current Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the matching LCROSS mission are so important. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is capable of imaging the surface of the moon in roughly one meter resolution; one meter per pixel.
This means that most tall individuals if they lay down like they’re sunbathing on the moon you’d be able to see them across more than one pixel.
Fraser: Yes it’ll be able to see the landers and the rovers.
Pamela: We already actually have images.
Fraser: Ha! We didn’t land on the moon! [Laughter]
Pamela: We can see the paths from people walking around on the surface. We can see the landers. What’s amazing about the LRO data – Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter data – is as people look through it one image at a time we suspect that we’ll be able to find lost missions.
Imagine sitting at your desk in your office slacking off or sitting on your sofa at home watching TV with your family flicking through images of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and seeing in those images some weird splat that looks like it has metal bits.
You wonder what it is and you report it. It turns out you just found some long lost Soviet mission crashed on the moon because you’re looking through Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images.
Fraser: Or, alien spaceships.
Pamela: I’m betting more on lost Soviet missions. [Laughter]
Fraser: Alright then interesting mineral veins, that kind of thing?
Pamela: Right and the cool thing about the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is when it went up it took the LCROSS mission on the same rocket with it. LCROSS is the little robot that kills itself. It is an imaging mission that took with it part of the rocket that they flew up into space together in.
It’s throwing ahead of it that empty fuel part of the rocket, crashing it into the surface of the moon and then flying through the debris that gets sent up looking for water. It is looking to see what is the chemical composition of that stuff that gets splashed into space with the collision?
Then LCROSS in its final dying act is going to follow that rocket shell straight into the surface and make its own impact. This is going to be visible to North America and the westernmost coast of Europe.
That’s coming in October where all of us can go out and watch a new crater being made in real-time.
Fraser: And watch that little flash on the moon if we’re lucky.
Pamela: These two missions are helping us figure out if the stuff we need to live on the moon is there. If it is, then where should we land?
Fraser: What changes have happened from the Obama administration now that – I mean it was George Bush that came up with the plan, it was [laughter] it was George Bush who articulated the plan, helped encourage funding for the plan (I’m sure there were a lot of hardworking people at NASA who came up with the plan – I apologize to all of you please don’t e-mail me). [Laughter] But what happened with the change of the administration?
Pamela: Obama is currently going through the U.S. books looking for excessive spending. It’s what we all have to do now and then. I know I’m looking for excessive spending right now. The economic times in the United States aren’t good.
Constellation is an expensive mission. It’s doing everything it can to use existing technology to build on things that we know work. We’re not recreating the wheel but it takes time. Because we’re still flying the space shuttle money is being deviated for that.
At a certain point some really harsh decisions are going to be made. Are we going to keep the Constellation program on schedule by gutting the science mission directory; removing money that would otherwise be used to explore the planets, to build space telescopes to look at the stars and the galaxies.
Fraser: Absolutely not.
Pamela: Are we going to abandon funding for the International Space Station? We have international treaties committing us to different programs.
Pamela: Then we have Constellation itself which is not cheap. Constellation was originally budgeted at about 28 billion dollars. It’s looking like it’s going to be closer to 44 billion today.
Fraser: Hmm what a surprise. What are the chances of that it is going to cost more than people are expecting? When you first saw the budgets for this the way they were planning to do it was to keep the shuttle going and tail it out to keep the space station going.
They were planning to fulfill all their commitments and then as well be developing this all new technology in the background. People called it out as being a little ridiculous back in the day. Here we are and now it looks like the budget is going to be high. It’s too late to go back now, right?
Pamela: Yeah, it’s sort of like saying oh yeah, well the backhoes are out there putting in the new pool, let’s also build an external garage. We already have all the tools.
Well yes but it’s a little harder than you might think. That’s an unfair assessment. NASA is trying hard but I don’t think anyone really realized the complexity of what they were doing. They dreamed large.
Fraser: I don’t think that’s true. I think anybody…
Pamela: Okay, anyone budgeting it [laughter]
Fraser: Well even that I think there were certain things that had to be said to make certain people happy and those things were said and people signed off and the project moved forward.
It’s just like you get a contractor who’s going to put a new addition on your house and sets a price. Then when he tears it open and realizes that termites have eaten away at a part of your house, and then it’s going to cost more money.
Anyone who has been project manager knows that stuff always happens. I’m a little skeptical on that front, I think. I don’t know anything about this and I would have expected the budget would go over budget.
I think people said what they had to say to move things forward. I’m really glad that they’re moving forward. I really wish that the money could be found. The way this usually happens right is you just stretch out the timeline. Instead of you getting there by 2020 you get there by 2025.
Pamela: The biggest concern we’re dealing with right now is that 2015 humans to the International Space Station. We finally almost finish building the thing – we will have finished building the thing when we lose the space shuttle.
Doesn’t it hurt your stomach to think about it’s finally done and now we can’t get there anymore?
Fraser: Sure we can. Just hop on the Russian Soyuz rockets and away you go or Chinese rockets.
Pamela: Yeah and it gets complicated because NASA still has to pay to use those.
Fraser: Right, you know it’s cheaper than developing it. I’m the Canadian here so [laughter] I don’t know. I don’t have any emotional investment on where the rocket got built.
It doesn’t bother me. Launch on an Avro Arrow – Canadians know what I’m talking about. [Laughter]
Pamela: As it stands Obama is in August of 2009 where we stand right now is doing an inquiry into the funding of the Constellation program and trying to figure out what is the best way to move forward. The House of the U.S. government chopped half a billion dollars from Barack Obama’s request for NASA funding.
We’re dealing in a constrained situation during hard economic times. I think this is a mission that the scientists are behind because we can launch really big telescopes if it just stays. We can launch really big rovers. The manned space flight people are in favor of this.
Fraser: Don’t you mean the human space flight people? [Laughter] Sorry.
Pamela: Yes I mean the human space flight people. [Laughter]
Fraser: I’m sorry, we get so many e-mails about why do you say the word manned?
Pamela: Because it’s shorter! [Laughter] It has fewer syllables.
Fraser: We are gender-equal here on astronomycast.
Pamela: Yes, but as I was saying, even the logo for Constellation has a vision. It’s the moon, Mars and Earth in silhouette showing the three bodies that this mission is hoping to help facilitate the exploration of. We just have to get it done.
Fraser: One of the neat ideas was to land on an asteroid. Is that moving forward at all?
Pamela: It’s not one of the things that you see on the NASA website. There are things you can do with the spacecraft – once you have it – and then there are the things that it is built for.
One of the really common things that we do in astronomy is we build something for such reason and then we use it for everything else under the sun. Hubble Space Telescope was built to figure out what are planetary nebulas and what is this expansion rate of the universe that keeps baffling us from the surface of the planet?
We’ve gotten a long ways on both of these questions. We’ve also used it to explore so many other questions, to explore so many different ideas. Constellation is being built with moon, low Earth orbit with heavy stuff and hopefully Mars as its mission.
Once you have it, who is to stop some commercial agency wanting to go mine an asteroid giving all of the launch money needed, give me one?
Fraser: Hmm and some astronauts.
Pamela: That’s no different than today when we do commercial launches with the space shuttle.
Fraser: Right they’ll pay to put their satellite in the cargo hold of the space shuttle and then it gets launched as part of the mission or as the only mission.
Fraser: Although it’s been too expensive, right that’s the problem. It has been poor use of money to launch on the space shuttle.
Pamela: Hopefully by giving up on the idea of a fully reusable craft we will figure out how to save money. This is one of the strange cases of reusable really wasn’t useful. It did a great job but it spent a whole lot of money for what it has done.
Fraser: Yeah that’s a whole other show. [Laughter]
Pamela: Orion, the capsules are each usable for about ten missions. The engines are reusable for a few missions. We are still green but acknowledging that one craft does need to get retired sooner than later.
Fraser: Before we wrap up the show, let’s give some people some important dates. Or at least let’s give them timeframes. When is the first test launch of the Ares rockets?
Pamela: Test launch? I haven’t been able to find a complete date on. What I know is a test firing of the whole shebang. An Ares they are calling X-1 is set for the end of August.
Fraser: When will astronauts probably be flying in them?
Pamela: In March 2015 is the “we will be done by then or else date”.
Fraser: March 2015?
Pamela: Yes we have awhile.
Fraser: Right and then when should we probably see humans setting foot back on the moon?
Pamela: They’re saying no later than 2020. I’m not sure anyone believes that but they’re saying no later than 2020. We’d like to believe it I think.
Fraser: That’s like ten years.
Pamela: I know but it’s
Fraser: It went from zero to men on the moon – sorry humans – on the moon with the Apollo program. [Laughter]
Pamela: Yeah but we’re building really cool rovers that you can rove for massive distances in. The Altair system that is like a three-story lander; it is huge and you can live in it for a week happily.
It’s the difference between building a nice friendly hut out on a hill with your friends and building the world’s tallest building. One takes a bit longer than the other.
Fraser: There you go and that’s where we stand right now. I’m sure we’ll do more shows in the future as the technology works its way out and actual launches start happening and we get closer to the end of the space shuttle.
Then the first Ares launching and eventually if we keep doing this show we’ll do a special on the first landing on the moon. That’s it everyone has to hold out for another ten or twelve years of astronomycast so we can do that show. Keep listening.
This transcript is not an exact match to the audio file. It has been edited for clarity. Transcription and editing by Cindy Leonard.