18 November 2018

Near-Term and Long-Term Goals: Space Station and Lunar Base (1983-1984)

Homeward bound: an Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV) bearing a returning lunar base crew aerobrakes in Earth's atmosphere. After aerobraking it will rendezvous with the NASA space station. Image credit: Pat Rawlings/NASA
In December 1983, the National Science Foundation's Division of Policy Research and Analysis enlisted Science Applications Incorporated (SAI) of McLean, Virginia, to compare the science and technology research potential of an Earth-orbiting space station and a base on the moon. In its report, which was completed on 10 January 1984, SAI cautioned that, because its study was performed "in a very short two-week period," it could offer only "a preliminary indication" of the relative merits of a space station in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and a lunar base. Though SAI did not say so, its study had a short turnaround time because its results were meant to inform the White House ahead of President Ronald Reagan's planned announcement of a NASA space station program during his 25 January 1984 State of the Union Address.

SAI explained that its study used a four-step approach. First, the study team judged which science and technology disciplines could best be served by an LEO space station and which by a lunar base. Next, the team developed a lunar base conceptual design capable of serving the disciplines it identified. It then developed a transportation system concept for deploying and maintaining its base. Finally, the team estimated the cost of developing, building, and operating its lunar base.

The team identified five science and technology disciplines that would be better served by a base on the moon than by a space station. The first was radio astronomy. Bowl-shaped radio telescopes might be built in bowl-shaped lunar craters, SAI wrote. Radio astronomers might take advantage of the moon's Farside (the hemisphere turned permanently away from Earth), where up to 2160 miles of rock would shield their instruments from terrestrial radio interference. The 238,000-mile separation between lunar and terrestrial radio telescopes would enable Very Long Baseline Interferometry capable of detecting minute details of galaxies far beyond the Milky Way.

A bowl-shaped crater makes an ideal site for a bowl-shaped radio telescope. Visible stars are artist's license; the harsh glare of the Sun in lunar daylight would banish them from view. Image credit: NASA
High-energy astrophysics and physics was SAI's second lunar base discipline. The team noted that, because the moon offers "a large, flat area, a free vacuum, and a local source of refined material for magnets," it might serve as the site for a large particle accelerator.

Lunar geology (which SAI called "selenology") would obviously be better served by a lunar base than by a space station. SAI noted that, despite 13 successful U.S. robotic lunar missions and six successful Apollo landings, the moon had "barely been sampled and explored." Lunar base selenological exploration would focus on "understanding better the early history and internal structure of the Moon" and "exploring for possible ore and volatile deposits." Selenologists would rove far afield from the base to measure heat flow and magnetic properties, drill deep into the surface, deploy seismographs, and collect and analyze rock samples.

SAI's fourth lunar discipline was resource utilization. The study team noted that samples returned to Earth by the Apollo astronauts contained 40% oxygen by weight, along with silicon, titanium, and other useful chemical elements. Lunar oxygen could be used as oxidizer for chemical propulsion spacecraft traveling between Earth and moon and from LEO to geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO). Silicon could be used to make solar cells. (SAI pointed out, however, that the two-week lunar night would make reliance on solar arrays for electricity "somewhat difficult.") Raw lunar dirt - known as regolith - could serve as radiation shielding. If water ice were found at the lunar poles - perhaps by the automated lunar polar orbiter that SAI advised should precede the lunar base program - then the moon might supply hydrogen rocket fuel as well as oxidizer.

SAI's fifth and final lunar base science discipline was systems development. The team expected that lunar base technology development would be "devoted to improving the efficiency and capabilities of systems that support the base," such as life support, with the goal of "reduced reliance on supplies sent from Earth." Transport system development might include research aimed at developing a linear electromagnetic launcher of the kind first proposed by Arthur C. Clarke in 1950. Such a device - often called a "mass driver" - might eventually launch bulk cargoes (for example, lunar regolith, liquid oxygen propellant, and refined ores) to sites around the Earth-moon system.

The SAI team noted that some disciplines might be served equally well by a lunar base or an Earth-orbiting space station. Large (100-meter) telescopes for optical astronomy, for example, might be equally effective on the moon or in Earth orbit. The moon, however, would offer a stable, solid surface that might enable the "pointing stability and optical system coherence" necessary in such a telescope.

SAI acknowledged that its report proposed "research and development activities. . .too numerous and often too difficult for a first-generation lunar base." It thus divided activities within the five lunar base disciplines into two categories: those suitable for its first-generation base and those that would need a more elaborate second-generation facility. First-generation radio astronomy, for example, would use two small dish antennas on Nearside (the lunar hemisphere facing Earth). In the second generation, a 100-meter-diameter antenna would operate on Farside.

Having defined its lunar base science program, the SAI team moved on to the second and third steps in its study. The team assumed that NASA's Space Shuttle, which at the time they wrote had just completed its ninth flight (STS-9/Spacelab 1, 28 November-8 December 1983), along with an LEO space station, would form part of the lunar base transportation infrastructure. The Shuttle would cheaply and reliably deliver lunar base crews, spacecraft, and cargo to the station, where they would be brought together for flight to the moon. SAI proposed reapplying hardware developed for the LEO station to the lunar base program.

An October 1984 paper for the first Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century symposium provided additional details of SAI's Earth-moon transportation system and surface base design. Where these conflict with the December 1983 report, the description that follows defaults to information contained only in the December 1983 report (mostly).

SAI's lunar transportation system would include three types of spacecraft. The first, the reusable Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV), would be a two-stage spacecraft permanently based at the LEO station. SAI assumed that NASA would develop OTVs for moving cargoes between the LEO station and higher orbits (for example, GEO) and that this basic OTV design would then be modified for lunar base use. The OTV, which would operate as a piloted spacecraft through addition of a pressurized "personnel pod," would be capable of delivering up to 16,950 kilograms of crew and cargo to lunar orbit.

An OTV-derived four-legged lander would form the basis of two vehicles: the Logistics Lander and the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). The former would include a removable subsystem module for automated lunar landings. The latter would carry a personnel pod for piloted flight. These were the second and third spacecraft in SAI's lunar transportation system, though one might argue that they were actually tricked-up OTVs.

SAI's one-way cargo lunar flight mode. Please click to enlarge. Image credit: Science Applications, Inc.
The three vehicle types would support two basic flight modes. One-way cargo missions would use Direct Descent. The OTV first stage would ignite and burn nearly all of its propellants, then would separate, turn around, and fire its engines to slow down and return to the LEO station for refurbishment. The OTV second stage would then ignite, burn most of its propellants, and separate from the Logistics Lander. The second stage would swing around the moon on a free-return trajectory, fall back to Earth, aerobrake in Earth's atmosphere, and rendezvous with the LEO station. The Logistics Lander, meanwhile, would descend directly to the lunar base site with no stop in lunar orbit.

For two-way crew sorties, the OTV first stage would operate as during a one-way cargo mission. After a three-day flight, the OTV second stage/personnel pod combination would capture into lunar orbit, where it would dock with a waiting LEM carrying lunar base astronauts bound for Earth. They would trade places with the new base crew. In addition to the new crew, 12,750 kilograms of propellants (sufficient for a round trip from lunar orbit to the surface base and back again) and up to 2000 kilograms of cargo would be transferred from the OTV second stage/personnel pod to the LEM.

SAI's roundtrip crew rotation lunar flight mode. Please click to enlarge. Image credit: Science Applications, Inc.
The OTV second stage/personnel pod and the LEM would then separate. The former would fire its engines to depart lunar orbit for Earth, and the latter would descend to a landing at the lunar base. The OTV second stage/personnel pod combination would subsequently aerobrake in Earth's atmosphere and return to the LEO station for refurbishment.

SAI's base buildup sequence would begin with a pair of Site Survey Mission flights. The first would see an unpiloted LEM with empty propellant tanks placed into lunar orbit through a variant of the crew sortie mode. An automated OTV second stage bearing the LEM in place of a personnel pod would enter lunar orbit, undock from the LEM, and return to Earth.

The second Site Survey Mission flight would employ another variant of the Crew Sortie mode. Five astronauts would arrive in lunar orbit in an OTV second stage/personnel pod and dock with the waiting LEM. The four astronauts of the base site survey team would transfer to the LEM along with propellants and supplies. They would then undock and land at the proposed base site, leaving the OTV pilot alone in lunar orbit. After completing their survey of the site, they would return to the OTV second stage/personnel pod, then would undock from the LEM and return to Earth orbit.

Assuming that the base site checked out as acceptable, Flight 3 would see the start of base deployment. A Logistics Lander would employ Direct Descent mode to deliver to the base site an Interface Module and a Power Plant. The Interface Module, which would be based on LEO space station hardware, would include a cylindrical airlock, a top-mounted observation bubble, and a cylindrical tunnel with ports for attaching other base modules. SAI's proposed Power Plant was a nuclear source capable of generating 100 kilowatts of electricity.

Flight 4 would deliver two "mass mover" rovers, two 2000-kilogram mobile laboratory trailers, and a 1000-kilogram lunar resource utilization pilot plant. The rovers would tow the mobile labs up to 200 kilometers from the base on selenologic excursions lasting up to five days. The mobile labs would carry instruments for microscopic imaging, elemental and mineral analysis, and subsurface ice detection. They would also carry a radio sounder for exploring beneath the lunar surface, stereo cameras, and a soil auger or core tube for drilling up to two meters deep. The first-generation lunar resource utilization Pilot Plant would process 10,000 kilograms of regolith per year to yield oxygen, silicon, iron, aluminum, titanium, magnesium, and calcium.

Flight 5 would deliver the Laboratory Module, the first 14-foot-diameter, 40-foot-long cylindrical base module based on the pressurized module design used on the LEO station. Flight 6 would deliver the Habitat Module, which would provide living quarters for the seven-person base crew, and Flight 7 would deliver the Resources Module, which would include a pressurized control center and an unpressurized section containing water and oxygen tanks and equipment for life support, power conditioning, and thermal control. The final base deployment flight, a duplicate of Flight 1, would deliver a backup LEM to lunar orbit.

Long-term occupation of the moon would begin with Flight 9, a crew sortie mission that would deliver a four-person construction team. A three-person construction team would join them on Flight 10, bringing the total base population to seven. The OTV pilots for these flights would return to Earth alone after the construction teams undocked and landed at the base in their respective LEMs.

Using the mass mover rovers, the base crew would unload the Logistics Landers and join together the base components. The completed base would provide seven astronauts with 2000 cubic feet of living space per person. They would attach the Lab, Hab, and Resource Modules to the Interface Module, then would link the resource utilization pilot plant to the Lab Module.

The Power Plant would be placed a safe distance away from the base and linked by a cable to the base power conditioning system. The crew would link the Power Plant and base thermal control system by hoses to a heat exchanger/heat sink, then would activate the Power Plant. Finally, the astronauts would use bulldozer scoops on the rovers to cover the pressurized modules with regolith radiation shielding.

Flight 11, the first base crew rotation flight, would see the four-person construction team that arrived on Flight 9 lift off in a LEM and return to lunar orbit, where they would dock with an OTV second stage/personnel pod combination just arrived from Earth. The Flight 9 lunar base team would trade places with them and, following LEM refueling and cargo loading, would descend to a landing at the base. The first construction team and the Flight 11 OTV pilot would then return to the LEO station. On Flight 12, a three-person base team would replace the Flight 10 team.

Lunar base teams of three or four astronauts would rotate every two months. The typical base complement would include a commander/LEM pilot, an LEM pilot/mechanic, a technician/mechanic, a doctor/scientist, a geologist, a chemist, and a biologist/doctor, SAI wrote.

Mass mover rover in the field with advanced power cart and deep drill rig. Image credit: NASA
SAI then estimated the cost of its lunar base and three years of operations based on NASA's cost estimates for the Space Shuttle and the LEO station. At the time SAI conducted its study, NASA placed the cost of its proposed LEO station at between $8 billion and $12 billion. This was in fact an underestimation calculated to make the station more politically palatable. NASA placed the total cost of LEO station Logistics, Habitat, Laboratory, and Resource Modules and other structures at $7.1 billion, so SAI estimated the total cost of the lunar base Resource, Habitat, Laboratory, and Interface Modules at $5.8 billion.

Although the OTV would find uses in LEO and GEO, SAI charged all of its development and procurement costs (a total of $7.2 billion) to the lunar base. The expendable Logistics Lander and reusable LEM would cost $6.6 billion and $4.8 billion, respectively. The LEM, though structurally beefier and more complex, would cost less because the Logistics Lander would bear the development cost of systems common to both landers.

Based on optimistic NASA pricing, the SAI team assumed that a Shuttle flight would cost $110 million in 1990. The 89 Shuttle flights in the lunar base program would thus cost a total of $9.8 billion. The LEO station, by contrast, would need only 17 Shuttle flights at a cost of $1.9 billion. SAI placed total LEO station cost plus three years of operations at $14.2 billion. Lunar base cost plus three years of operations came to $54.8 billion.

To conclude its report, SAI noted that both the LEO station and the lunar base could be completed in about a decade. The LEO station would, however, serve a broader science user community and would provide an OTV base in LEO for eventual lunar base use. The SAI team argued that the LEO station was a reasonable near-term (for the next 10 years) objective, while the lunar base would yield obvious benefits in a long-term (50 years) space program. It added that the
Space Program will function best if it has both near-term objectives and long-range goals. The near-term objectives assure [sic] that we progress with each year that passes. The long-range goals provide direction for our annual progress. The Space Station and Lunar Base appear to serve these respective roles at the present time.

A Manned Lunar Science Base: An Alternative to Space Station Science? A Brief Comparative Assessment, Report No. SAI-84/1502, Science Applications, Inc., 10 January 1984

"Preliminary Design of a Permanently Manned Lunar Surface Research Base," S. Hoffman and J. Niehoff, Science Applications International Corporation; published in Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century, "papers from a NASA sponsored, public symposium hosted by the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., Oct[ober] 29-31, 1984," W. W. Mendell, editor, Lunar and Planetary Institute, 1985, pp. 69-75

More Information

There's a Helluva Good World Next Door

Chronology: Space Station 1.0

As Gemini Was to an Apollo Lunar Landing by 1970, So Apollo Would Be to a Permanent Lunar Base by 1980 (1968)

"A Vision of the Future": Military Uses of the Moon and Asteroids (1983)


  1. This is the first NASA plan of a return to the moon that I have heard of that dates to the period between the end of Apollo and the Space Exploration Initiative. Keep up the good work

    1. There are quite a few others. The Ride Report (1987), which I summed up in an earlier post, has a lunar outpost component, and Ride herself was keen to return to the Moon ahead of the first piloted Mars mission. Ride followed in ridiculously expansive and expensive shoes Tom Paine's National Commission on Space (1986). NASA planning via SAI and Eagle Engineering got rolling in 1982-1983 - a major lunar base conference was held in 1984, with a follow-on in 1988. The NASA HQ Office of Exploration got its start after Ride, produced some keen ideas.

      Unfortunately, the masterminds behind SEI's 90-Day Study (1989) didn't incorporate much of the 1980s work. Eventually they arrived about where NASA lunar advance planning was in about 1964, with the LESA concept, but before that they had to run down some blind alleys they might have avoided.


  2. Oh, the places we could have gone...

  3. Captain:

    I suspect we still can, though perhaps not as we once envisioned - probably more remote presence and small spacecraft. The vision presented in this post is just a step removed from 1930s-1950s visions. I think we'll see an approach to the Moon no one expects before we're done.

    Maybe there'll be options available for itinerant sailors. ;-)



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