11 July 2018


That's no Moonbase. . .that's a Space Station. Image credit: NASA
After nearly two decades, I am no longer a resident of Flagstaff, Arizona. The movers loaded up a truck and transplanted us in the Phoenix area on 6 July, where the temperature topped out at 114° Fahrenheit. In the intervening days, we've had dust storms mixed with rain, as might occur, I suppose, on a Mars where terraforming at last is showing obvious results. Neither the high temperature nor the dust storms are typical of Flagstaff (nor, indeed, of any other place I have lived).

That being said, this is familiar territory. My grandparents were snowbirds here for decades, and my late wife's parents retired to nearby Tucson. That was where I first met them. Also, Flagstaff and Phoenix are only about 100 miles apart, so I have visited the latter many times.

Flagstaff is at 7000 feet, while Phoenix is closer to 2000 feet. So, while Phoenix is desert and saguaro, Flagstaff is snowy mountains and ponderosa pine. I've always enjoyed that startling difference.

None of this is especially relevant to the purpose of this blog. It is, however, illustrative of how my world is changing. I think the changes when taken together make a pretty decent excuse for why this blog has been neglected this past month or so. We had to find lodgings, I continued working remotely for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) team, I continued physical therapy, and then there was the seemingly endless packing of books and files.

I have a lot of books and files. In fact, by weight, books and files probably accounted for 90% of our move.

Monday was my first day at work. I am working on five Featured Image posts for the LROC website. One is about peculiar "cold spots" that appear around young, smallish craters. The other four Featured Images are anaglyph images of Tycho, the peculiar Mare Marginis "swirls," and two lesser-known craters with interesting geologic features. (Anaglyph images appear three-dimensional when viewed through red-blue or red-green glasses.)

As for this blog, I am eager to complete an all-new post. Though back in January I declared that I would focus on lunar bases in 2018, the post I am working on is about a space station. I'm not breaking my promise, however; the components designed for this station were re-applied to both a lunar-orbital station concept and an important lunar base study. I am not sure when this post will be complete, though unless I become lost in a dust storm, it will certainly be finished by the end of this month.

28 May 2018

Lunar Viking (1970)

NASA's lunar soft-landers: in the background, the Apollo 12 Lunar Module Intrepid; in the foreground with Apollo 12 Commander Charles Conrad, Surveyor 3. Image credit: NASA
In the 1960s, U.S. space assets included two spacecraft designed to soft-land on the Moon. These were automated three-legged Surveyor, of which seven were launched on Atlas-Centaur rockets between June 1966 and January 1968 (five Surveyors landed successfully), and the piloted four-legged Apollo Lunar Module (LM), which landed at six sites between July 1969 and December 1972.

Even as Surveyor 7 successfully soft-landed near the great ray crater Tycho, NASA, science advisory groups, Congress, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson considered plans for a project to soft-land spacecraft on Mars. Originally conceived in late 1967/early 1968 as "Titan Mars 1973," Project Viking, as it became known, received new-start funding in the Fiscal Year (FY) 1969 budget.

NASA's Langley Research Center (LaRC) managed Viking. LaRC, located in Hampton, Virginia, contracted with Martin Marietta in Denver, Colorado, to build two new-design Viking Landers. Meanwhile, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, began work on two Viking Orbiters based on its Mariner flyby spacecraft design first flown in 1962. The twin Viking spacecraft would each comprise a Lander and an Orbiter, and each Lander-Orbiter combination would leave Earth atop a Titan rocket with a Centaur upper stage.

NASA at first planned to launch the Vikings in July 1973, when an opportunity for a minimum-energy Earth-Mars transfer would occur. In January 1970, however, tight funding planned for FY 1971 forced a slip to the August-September 1975 minimum-energy Earth-Mars transfer opportunity.

For NASA's piloted space program, 1970 was eventful even though only a single mission took place. The mission, Apollo 13 (11-17 April 1970), was intended to build on the experience gained through the Apollo 11 (16-24 July 1969) and Apollo 12 (14-24 November 1969) landings. The Apollo 11 LM Eagle landed long, but the Apollo 12 LM Intrepid set down close by derelict Surveyor 3 on the Ocean of Storms, demonstrating that the LM could successfully reach a predetermined target.

Landing accuracy was important for planning geologic traverses, the first of which was to have taken place at Fra Mauro during Apollo 13. An explosion in the Service Module of the Apollo 13 Command and Service Module (CSM) Odyssey scrubbed the landing and put off the first lunar geologic traverse to Apollo 14 (31 January-9 February 1971), which also was directed to Fra Mauro.

The Apollo 13 accident and postponement of subsequent missions meant that much of the activity in NASA's piloted program in 1970 concerned planning and budgets. President Richard Nixon saw no cause for a large-scale Apollo-type goal in the 1970s; NASA Administrator Thomas Paine begged to differ. Nixon appointed the Space Task Group (STG) in February 1969 - less than a month after his inauguration - and made his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, its chair. Paine, a Washington neophyte, misjudged Agnew's importance in the Nixon White House, so believed that he had scored big when Agnew declared at the Apollo 11 launch that he believed NASA should put a man on Mars before the end of the 20th century.

Paine took Agnew's statement as an endorsement of the Integrated Program Plan (IPP), NASA's proposal for its future after Apollo. The IPP included a large Earth-orbital "Space Base," nuclear rockets, lunar orbital and surface bases, a piloted Mars landing mission, and Mars orbital and surface bases. At Paine's insistence, the STG's September 1969 report The Post-Apollo Space Program: Directions for the Future offered the White House only the IPP with three different timetables for carrying it out. Nixon's aides, more cognizant of their boss's thoughts on spaceflight, added an introduction outlining a future with no major goals and no target dates.

This NASA Marshall Space Flight Center illustration from 1970 displays Integrated Program Plan hardware elements planned to be operational in the 1990s. 
Paine largely ignored this clear message, instead focusing his efforts on making a permanent Earth-orbiting Space Station NASA's 1970s goal. In addition to a host of Earth-focused uses, the Station would permit astronauts to live and work in space for long periods. This would enable aerospace physicians to certify that humans could remain in space long enough to reach and return from Mars, a voyage that might last three years. A reusable piloted logistics resupply & crew rotation spacecraft - a Space Shuttle - would economically service the Station.

Paine expected that NASA would use a two-stage version of the Saturn V rocket to launch the core Station and other large IPP hardware elements. In January 1970, however, he found himself obliged to announce that Saturn V production would end with the fifteenth rocket in the series. Apollo missions through Apollo 19 would occur at six-month intervals, ending in 1974, and Apollo 20 would be canceled so that its Saturn V, the last of the original Apollo buy, could launch the Skylab Orbital Workshop. Skylab was the last remnant of President Johnson's post-Apollo piloted program, the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), which aimed to apply successful Apollo technology to new space goals; that is, to squeeze the U.S. investment in Apollo for all it was worth.

NASA advance planning developed a split personality in 1970. Some planners assumed that Saturn V rockets would be available indefinitely; others, that the Space Shuttle would launch all IPP hardware.

For example, even as Paine announced the end of Saturn V production, NASA piloted spaceflight planners studied a versatile reusable chemical-propellant Space Tug which could double as a Saturn V fourth stage. As early as 1980, a four-stage Saturn V would launch a Lunar Orbit Space Station (LOSS). The Saturn V S-IVB third stage would boost the LOSS/Space Tug toward the Moon and detach; the Space Tug would then correct the LOSS's course en route to the Moon and slow it so that the Moon's gravity could capture it into lunar orbit.

Subsequent Saturn V missions would build up a propellant farm and fleet of Space Tugs in lunar orbit. Astronauts in Space Tugs with crew cabins and landing legs would then descend from the LOSS to resume piloted lunar surface exploration and build a Lunar Surface Base (LSB).

Space Tug outfitted for piloted lunar landings. Image credit: NASA
In June 1970, five planners with Bellcomm, the NASA Headquarters planning contractor, completed a multi-part memorandum in which they bemoaned the "prolonged gap in the lunar program. . .of at least six years" that NASA's Space Tug/LOSS/LSB plans would create. They argued that the gap would threaten the multidisciplinary community of lunar scientists Apollo and its robotic precursors had created. The gap also meant that Apollo exploration would make discoveries that could not be followed up until at least 1980. Construction of the LSB could not proceed immediately after the LOSS was established; piloted Space Tug missions to check out prospective LSB sites would need to take place first.

The Bellcomm team proposed a novel method of filling the gap after Apollo 19 and hastening construction of the LSB. They sought to repurpose spacecraft designs expected to become available in 1975: namely, the robotic Orbiter and Lander of the Viking Mars exploration program.

At the time they wrote, neither the Viking Orbiter nor Viking Lander designs were final. The Lander, for example, would eventually carry three biology experiments and two scanning cameras, but the Bellcomm team assumed only two biology experiments and one camera. They saw this as an advantage, for it meant that the Mars Viking design was not so far along that it could not to some degree take into account anticipated Lunar Viking needs.

Lunar Viking Lander. Image credit: NASA/Russell Arasmith
The most obvious modification to the Mars Viking design for lunar missions would be replacement of the Lander aeroshell, heat shield, and parachutes with a solid-propellant landing rocket. The Lunar Viking Orbiter would expend liquid propellants to slow itself and the Lunar Viking Lander so that the Moon's gravity could capture the combination into lunar orbit, then would perform maneuvers to adjust its orbit ahead of Lander release. The Lander would then detach and, at the proper time for a landing at its target site, ignite the solid-propellant rocket. After its propellant was expended, the motor casing would fall away. The Lunar Viking Lander would then complete descent and soft-landing using liquid-propellant vernier rockets.

The Bellcomm team outlined six basic Lunar Viking missions; some included several variants. For example, the first Lunar Viking mission, the Orbital Survey Mission, would have three variants. None would include a Lander and all would use only instruments planned for the Mars Viking Orbiter. All three would complete their main objectives a month after capture into lunar orbit.

The Orbital Survey Mission variant #1 would see a Viking Lunar Orbiter map the entire Moon in visual wavelengths at eight-meter resolution from 460-kilometer-high lunar polar orbit. Variant #2 would map the entire lunar surface in stereo at 12-meter resolution. For variant #3, a Lunar Viking Orbiter would operate in 100-kilometer orbit. This, the Bellcomm planners explained, would enable it to image potential Lunar Viking Lander and Space Tug landing sites at two-meter resolution.

The Mars Viking Orbiter was meant to transmit data at a rate of just 1000 bits per second over a distance ranging from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of kilometers (that is, from Mars to Earth). The Lunar Viking Orbiter, on the other hand, would transmit from only about 380,000 kilometers (that is, from the Moon), so in theory could transmit about 75,000 bits per second. The Viking Orbiter data recorder could, Bellcomm estimated, store up to 100 images. The Lunar Viking Orbiter would use these capabilities to image the Moon while it was out of radio contact over the Farside hemisphere and transmit the Farside images to Earth while it passed over the Nearside hemisphere.

A Titan III-C rocket would be sufficient to place the Lunar Viking Orbiter into a 100-kilometer circular lunar polar orbit with plenty of propellant remaining on board for additional maneuvers. An Atlas-Centaur SLV-3C rocket would suffice if after lunar-orbit capture no other maneuvers were planned.

The second type of Orbiter-only Lunar Viking mission would use a Titan III-C-launched Orbiter outfitted with a scientific instrument suite tailored specifically for lunar investigations. The Bellcomm team modeled their specialized Lunar Viking Orbiter science payload on instruments expected to be mounted in the Service Module of the advanced Apollo 16, Apollo 17, Apollo 18, and Apollo 19 CSMs.

The Bellcomm team's third Lunar Viking mission would establish twin Farside Geophysical Observatories. A Titan III-D/Centaur rocket - the rocket intended in 1970 to launch the 1975 Mars Vikings - could, they calculated, place a stripped-down Lunar Viking Orbiter with two Lunar Viking Landers attached into a 600-kilometer circular equatorial orbit. The twin Landers would then detach and land at two different Farside sites, out of direct radio contact with Earth. The Orbiter would serve as a communications satellite for retransmitting radio signals from the twin Landers. Landing site selection would be based on Orbital Survey Mission images.

The Farside Geophysical Observatory payload on the twin Landers would comprise instruments similar to those in the Apollo Lunar Scientific Experiment Package (ALSEP) the Apollo astronauts first deployed during Apollo 12. This would extend the exclusively Nearside Apollo seismic monitoring network to the Farside hemisphere.

Unfortunately, a Lunar Viking Orbiter in 600-kilometer equatorial orbit could receive signals from each Lunar Viking Lander only about 10% of the time. The Bellcomm planners noted that an Orbiter in a 5000-kilometer circular equatorial orbit could communicate with a Lander at Tsiolkovskii crater (23° south latitude) 26% of the time. Launching on the Titan III-D/Centaur would, they explained, enable the stripped-down Lunar Viking Orbiter to carry enough propellants to capture into 600-kilometer orbit and, after it released the Landers, maneuver to a 5000-kilometer communications orbit for the remainder of the mission.

Bellcomm's fourth Lunar Viking mission, the Farside Geochemical Mission, would see a Lunar Viking Orbiter/augmented Lunar Viking Lander combination leave Earth atop a Titan III-D/Centaur and capture into a 2000-kilometer circular equatorial orbit. The augmented Lunar Viking Lander would detach and ignite its chemical-propellant motors to place itself into a 2000-kilometer-by-100-kilometer elliptical orbit, then would ignite them again to reach a 100-kilometer circular equatorial orbit.

Finally, it would use its solid-propellant motor to deorbit and chemical-propellant verniers to soft-land at a geologically interesting Farside site. The Bellcomm team proposed that it transport to the surface a rover weighing up to 2000 pounds. Neither the augmented Lunar Viking Lander nor the rover was described. The Orbiter, again stripped down to serve mainly as a communications satellite, would remain in its initial 2000-kilometer orbit throughout the mission.

The Polar Mission, fifth on Bellcomm's list, would see the Lunar Viking Orbiter and Lander perform science together much as the Mars Viking Orbiter and Lander were meant to do. The Orbiter would again serve as a relay, but would also carry a suite of scientific instruments. The Lunar Viking Orbiter would capture into a 100-kilometer lunar polar orbit. As it passed over the Moon's poles, it would search permanently shadowed polar craters for ice deposits.

If ice were found, the Orbiter would release the Lander and maneuver to a higher orbit to improve communications. The Lander, meanwhile, would touch down in cold darkness and use an arm-mounted scoop or perhaps a drill to collect surface material for analysis in an on-board automated lab.

The sixth and most complex Lunar Viking mission, the Transient Event Mission, would aim to find and study Transient Lunar Phenomena (TLP). The Bellcomm team, which devoted an entire appendix of their report to TLP studies, noted that TLP had been recorded for decades at many sites on the Moon by telescopic observers. Appearing as bright spots, color changes, and hazes, TLP were generally interpreted as volcanic gas releases tied, perhaps, to the tides Earth raises in the solid crust of the Moon.

According to the Bellcomm planners, about half of all TLP recorded by 1970 had occurred in and around 40-kilometer-wide Aristarchus crater, located just west of Mare Imbrium in one of the most geologically diverse areas of the Moon. The Lunar Viking Orbiter would thus spend as much time as possible within sight of Aristarchus. This requirement would, along with the need for good image resolution, dictate Lunar Viking Orbiter altitude and maneuvers.

Aristarchus is the largest and brightest crater in this Apollo 15 image. Image credit: NASA
In June 1970, the Mars Viking Orbiter was expected to operate during a six-month Earth-Mars cruise and then for at least three months in Mars orbit. This meant that - in theory - the Lunar Viking Orbiter could be expected to seek TLP for nine months in lunar orbit. In practice, the spacecraft would pass in and out of night several times each day as it orbited the Moon from very near the beginning of its mission, placing added stress on its solar arrays, batteries, and temperature-sensitive systems.

The Bellcomm team expected that the Lunar Viking Orbiter might not last for nine months, but that it would last long enough to detect a pattern in the occurrence of TLP events. Based on this pattern, the Lunar Viking Lander would be directed to a site where it would be likely to witness a TLP event up close.

If the Lunar Viking Orbiter could not spot enough TLP events to enable scientists to detect a pattern, the Lander would be dispatched to Aristarchus. There it would seek evidence of past TLP and stand by in the hope that it might witness a TLP event.

The Bellcomm planners lamented an expected six-year gap in U.S. lunar landings. One wonders how they would have greeted the news that NASA would soft-land no spacecraft on the Moon after Apollo 17 in December 1972 - that after almost 50 years, Apollo 17 remains the last U.S. lunar soft-lander. Three automated soft-landers followed Apollo 17: the Soviet Union's Luna 21, which delivered the eight-wheeled Lunokhod 2 rover (1973); Luna 24, which collected and launched to Earth a small sample of lunar surface material (1976); and China's Chang'e 3 lander (2015), which delivered the small Yutu rover.

20 August 1975: Viking 1 launch atop a Titan III-E/Centaur rocket. Image credit: NASA
The Viking 1 and Viking 2 spacecraft exceeded all expectations. Viking 1 reached Mars orbit on 19 June 1976. The Viking 1 Lander separated from its Orbiter and soft-landed on 20 July 1976. Viking 2 reached Mars on 7 August 1976, and its Lander touched down on 3 September 1976. The Viking Landers performed multiple life-detection experiments (with equivocal results). Together, the four spacecraft of Viking 1 and Viking 2 transmitted to Earth more than 100,000 images.

The Viking 2 Orbiter suffered a propulsion system leak and was turned off on 25 July 1978; the Viking 2 Lander suffered battery failure and was switched off on 11 April 1980. The Viking 1 Orbiter depleted its attitude-control gas supply and was turned off on 17 August 1980. Though designed to operate on Mars for 90 martian days (Sols), the Viking 1 Lander transmitted from Mars until 13 November 1982 - a total of 2245 Sols. It might have lasted longer, but a faulty command caused it to break contact with Earth.

NASA and its contractors proposed many Viking-derived missions for the late 1970s and early 1980s. These included rover and dual-rover missions, sample-returners, and landers and rovers for the martian moons Phobos and Deimos. Their planning efforts in some ways resembled those of Apollo planners in AAP and its successor/remnant, the Skylab Program. The Earth-orbiting Skylab Orbital Workshop was staffed three times in 1973-1974. There was, however, no Viking Applications Program; despite Viking's success, its spacecraft designs saw no further application.

Mariner-based Viking Orbiter with attached Viking Lander capsule. Image credit: NASA
Schematic of Viking Lander as it would appear on Mars with all appendages deployed. Image credit: NASA

The Post-Apollo Space Program: Directions for the Future, Space Task Group Report to the President, September 1969

America's Next Decades in Space: A Report for the Space Task Group, NASA, September 1969

Internal Note: Integrated Space Program - 1970-1990, IN-PD-SA-69-4, T. Sharpe & G. von Tiesenhausen, Advanced Systems Analysis Office, Program Development, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, 10 December 1969

"U. S. Space Pace Slowed Severely," W. Normyle, Aviation Week & Space Technology, 19 January 1970, p. 16

"Presentation Outline [Space Tug]," NASA Manned Spacecraft Center, 20 January 1970

"NASA Budget Hits 7-Year Low," W. Normyle, Aviation Week & Space Technology, 2 February 1970, pp. 16-18

"Viking Spacecraft for Lunar Exploration - Case 340," R. Kostoff, M. Liwshitz, S. Shapiro, W. Sill, and A. Sinclair, Bellcomm, Inc., 30 June 1970

On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet, 1958-1978, NASA SP-4212, E. Ezell and L. Ezell, NASA, 1984, pp. 128-153, pp. 185-201, pp. 245-284

More Information

"Assuming That Everything Goes Perfectly Well In The Apollo Program. . ." (1967)

The Russians are Roving! The Russians are Roving! A 1970 JPL Plan for a 1979 Mars Rover

Think Big: A 1970 Flight Schedule for NASA's 1969 Integrated Program Plan

A Bridge from Skylab to Station/Shuttle: Interim Space Station Program (1971)

Prelude to Mars Sample Return: the Mars 1984 Mission (1977)

04 May 2018

Saturn-Apollo Applications: Combining Missions to Save Rockets, Spacecraft, and Money (1966)

This cutaway illustration of the Saturn V rocket configured for Apollo lunar missions needs some explanation. "Apollo Capsule" is a label almost never applied to the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft. "LOX" is liquid oxygen. In the top two stages of the three-stage rocket, fuel tanks hold liquid hydrogen; the first stage fuel tank contains RP-1 aviation fuel similar to kerosene. Image credit: NASA
Long before NASA reached the Moon, the U.S. civilian space agency's managers and engineers began to look at ways of using Apollo lunar hardware in non-lunar and advanced lunar missions. In April 1963, for example, the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston awarded North American Aviation (NAA), prime contractor for the three-man Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft, a contract to study modifying the CSM to serve as a six-man crew transport and logistics resupply vehicle for a 24-man Earth-orbiting space station.

In early 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson asked NASA Administrator James Webb to plan a future space program based on Apollo hardware. The primary goal was to squeeze the Apollo investment for all it was worth. NASA began to study options for using Apollo hardware for new missions. Progress in 1964 was minimal in part because the space agency was oversubscribed. In addition to creating Apollo spacecraft, launchers, and infrastructure, NASA was preparing Project Gemini, a series of 10 piloted missions meant to teach American astronauts rendezvous and docking and spacewalk techniques required for Apollo Moon flights and to confirm that astronauts could live in space long enough (up to two weeks) to accomplish a lunar mission.

On 18 February 1965, George Mueller, NASA Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Astronautics that repurposing Apollo hardware would enable NASA "to perform a number of useful missions. . .in an earlier time-frame than might otherwise be expected" and at a fraction of the cost of developing wholly new spacecraft. He explained that NASA's program for applying Apollo hardware to new missions "would follow the basic Apollo manned lunar landing program and would represent an intermediate step between this important national goal and future manned space flight programs." At the time he testified, the first manned lunar landing attempt was slated for late 1967 or early 1968.

Six months later, in August 1965, Mueller established the Saturn-Apollo Applications (SAA) Office at NASA Headquarters. The new organization quickly began efforts to define the SAA Program's hardware requirements and mission manifest. At about the same time, SAA began to be referred to as the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), the name by which it is best known today.

In late January 1966, Mueller wrote to the directors of the three main NASA facilities dedicated to piloted spaceflight - MSC, the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, and Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida - to sum up SAA's evolving objectives. He told Robert Gilruth (MSC), Wernher von Braun (MSFC), and Kurt Debus (KSC) that, in addition to readying NASA for its next Apollo-scale space goal - no one knew what that would be in early 1966, though a large Earth-orbiting space station stood near the top of the list - SAA should provide immediate benefits to the American public in areas as diverse as air pollution control, Earth-resources remote sensing, improved weather forecasting, materials science, and communications satellite repair.

Apollo spacecraft and rockets in 1966. The "Uprated Saturn I" rocket at lower right, used for Earth-orbital missions, would soon be renamed the Saturn IB. Image credit: NASA
By March 1966, the SAA Program Office had compiled a list of potential new missions for Apollo hardware. From MSC and NAA came proposals for CSM missions in low-Earth orbit (LEO), geosynchronous orbit, and lunar orbit. MSFC proposed that the spent S-IVB second stages of Saturn IB rockets be outfitted in LEO to serve double-duty as pressurized "workshops."

Apollo Lunar Module (LM) prime contractor Grumman suggested that LMs without legs or ascent engines might serve as Earth-orbital and lunar-orbital scientific instrument carriers and mini-laboratories. The company also proposed manned and unmanned LM variants - respectively the LM Taxi and the LM Shelter - for 14-day lunar surface stays. The LM Shelter design took several forms; most carried surface transportation systems (rovers or flyers).

All of these spacecraft would reach space atop Apollo Saturn IB and Saturn V rockets, some of which might be uprated for increased payload capacity. In its early SAA planning, NASA referred to missions by their launch vehicle designations. The second, third, and fourth Saturn V-launched SAA missions were thus called AS-511, AS-512, and AS-513 because they would use the 11th, 12th, and 13th of 15 Saturn V rockets purchased for Apollo. SAA planners assumed that, the moment Apollo achieved its goal of a man on the Moon, all remaining Apollo hardware would be released to the SAA Program.

The image above shows an Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) spacecraft docked with a proposed Lunar Module (LM) variant meant to serve as a telescope mount for an SAA Workshop in Earth orbit. The AS-511 LM Lab would have shared many features with this design. Image credit: Grumman/NASA
The SAA Program Office envisioned AS-511 as a CSM-LM Lab mission that would map the Moon from lunar polar orbit. Its three-man crew would operate mapping cameras and sensors mounted on the LM Lab as the Moon revolved beneath their spacecraft, then would cast off the LM Lab and ignite their CSM's single Service Propulsion System (SPS) main engine to leave lunar orbit and return to Earth.

AS-512 would see a three-man CSM deliver an uncrewed LM Shelter to near-equatorial lunar orbit. The LM Shelter would undock and descend automatically to a preselected landing site. The three astronauts would then return to Earth.

AS-513, the first SAA piloted lunar landing mission, would launch less than three months after AS-512. Two astronauts would land near the LM Shelter in an LM Taxi while a third astronaut remained in lunar orbit on board an Extended Capability CSM (XCSM) with an independent space endurance of 45 days. The surface astronauts would place their LM Taxi in "hibernation" and use the LM Shelter as their base of operations for 14 days of exploration. A lunar day-night period lasts about 28 days at most sites, so if they landed at local dawn they would leave the lunar surface at local dusk.

The SAA Program Office solicited comment on its plans from Bellcomm, NASA Headquarters' Washington, DC-based Apollo planning contractor. On 4 April 1966, Bellcomm engineer P. W. Conrad (not to be confused with astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad) wrote a brief memorandum in which he proposed that the AS-511 and AS-512 missions be merged.

Conrad wrote that AS-511 did not need an LM Lab: its CSM could carry the cameras, film, sensors, and magnetic tape it would need for lunar-orbital mapping. He noted also that, in the SAA Program plan, the AS-512 CSM would be a mere "escort" for the LM Shelter, leaving its crew with relatively few meaningful duties. A mission in which a CSM bearing mapping instrumentation carried the LM Shelter to the Moon would keep its crew productively occupied, Conrad argued, and would free up a Saturn V, a CSM, and an LM Lab for other SAA missions.

He examined two possible profiles for the combined mission. In the first, which Conrad called "direct descent," the CSM would release the unmanned LM Shelter immediately following the last SPS course-correction burn en route to the Moon. The LM Shelter would fall toward the Moon's nearside without entering orbit. Fifty thousand feet above its target landing area, it would automatically ignite its Descent Propulsion System (DPS) engine to decelerate, hover until it found a safe spot, and land.

The piloted CSM, meanwhile, would pass over one of the lunar poles and fire its SPS behind the Moon to perform Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI); that is, it would slow down so that the Moon's gravity could capture it into polar mapping orbit.

As the CSM orbited, the Moon would revolve beneath it. If it were a Block II CSM with 14-day endurance, it would orbit the Moon for from five to eight days. After about seven days, the CSM would pass over half the Moon's surface and map about one quarter in daylight.

If it were an XCSM, it would orbit for about 28 days. After 14 days, it would pass over the entire lunar surface and map half in daylight. At the end of 28 days, it would pass over the entire lunar surface twice and map the entire surface in daylight. At the planned end of its time in lunar polar orbit - or sooner, if some fault developed that required an early Earth return - the XCSM would ignite its SPS behind the Moon to depart lunar polar orbit for Earth.

Conrad's second combined mission profile would see the LM Shelter remain docked to the CSM until some time after LOI. The CSM would ignite its SPS to slow itself and the LM Shelter so that the Moon's gravity could capture the docked spacecraft into polar orbit, then the crew would turn CSM-mounted cameras and sensors toward the moon.

As the CSM and LM Shelter orbited over the lunar poles, the Moon would revolve beneath them, so that within a few days of LOI the LM Shelter's nearside target landing site would move into position for descent and landing. The LM Shelter would then undock from the CSM and automatically ignite its DPS to begin descent over the Moon's farside hemisphere about 180° of longitude from its landing site. It would fire the DPS again close to the landing site to carry out powered descent, hover, and landing. The CSM astronauts, meanwhile, would continue their lunar-orbital mapping mission.

Conrad acknowledged that both scenarios had their advantages and disadvantages. Direct descent would require that the LM Shelter carry extra landing propellants, which might limit the mass of exploration equipment and life support consumables it could place on the Moon. This might in turn limit the scope of the two-week exploration it was meant to support. In addition, the LM Shelter's DPS would not be available as an SPS backup or supplement if an abort were declared before LOI or in lunar orbit.

On the plus side, relieving the CSM of the LM Shelter's mass ahead of LOI would reduce the quantity of propellants the SPS would need to expend to accomplish LOI. The mass freed up by reducing the CSM's propellant load could be applied to additional CSM cameras, film, sensors, magnetic tape, and life support consumables.

Retaining the LM Shelter until after LOI would maximize its payload mass, but would also require that the CSM carry more LOI propellants. This might lead to a reduction in the mass that could be devoted to cameras, film, sensors, tape, and life support consumables on board the CSM. On the other hand, the LM Shelter DPS would remain available as a backup or supplement to the SPS at least through LOI and, in almost all cases, for several days thereafter.

The SAA Program evolved rapidly. Conrad's proposal appears, however, not to have exerted much influence on SAA planners.

More consequential by far was the AS-204/Apollo 1 fire (27 January 1967), which killed astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. The fire, which revealed fundamental flaws in Apollo Program quality-control and contractor oversight, undermined support in Congress for NASA and, along with LM development delays, put off the first piloted lunar landing until July 1969. All six piloted Moon landings took place within the Apollo Program, and neither an Apollo lunar polar orbit mission nor a surface stay longer than about three days was accomplished.

The Saturn V rocket designated AS-511 in Conrad's memo launched the Apollo 16 lunar landing mission in April 1972. By then, NASA had changed its designation to SA-511. The SA-512 Saturn V launched Apollo 17, the final lunar landing mission, in December 1972, and SA-513 launched the Earth-orbital Skylab Orbital Workshop, the sole surviving remnant of what had been the SAA Program, in May 1973.

A lunar polar orbiter would have to wait until 1994, when the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization launched the 424-kilogram Clementine spacecraft (25 January 1994). The U.S. Department of Defense spacecraft followed a circuitous route to the Moon, at last arriving in mapping orbit on 19 February 1994. Though it accomplished a science mission, Clementine was conceived as a test of sensors and other technologies that would be used to detect and intercept nuclear-tipped missiles launched against the United States.

In an experiment using Earth-based radar, Clementine found the first indications of hydrogen concentrations in permanently shadowed craters near the Moon's poles. These were widely interpreted as signs of water ice, though the quantity of ice and its exact location could not be reliably determined. Clementine mapped the Moon until 3 May 1994, when it left lunar polar orbit bound for the near-Earth asteroid 1620 Geographos. A malfunction on 7 May 1994 caused Clementine to expend its propellant, however, scrubbing the asteroid flyby.

Japan's SELENE/Kaguya lunar polar orbiter with one of its two sub-satellites (center right). The spacecraft orbited the Moon from 3 October 2007 through 10 June 2009. Image credit: JAXA
NASA had sought to launch a robotic lunar polar orbiter since the 1960s. Not until 7 January 1998, however, did the Lunar Prospector mission begin. Lunar Prospector reached lunar polar orbit on 11 January 1998 and mapped the Moon until it was intentionally deorbited on 31 January 1999. The spacecraft crashed near the Moon's south pole, where it had detected more signs of water ice in permanently shadowed craters.

Since Lunar Prospector, the United States, Europe, Japan, China, and India have all launched automated spacecraft into lunar polar orbit. As of May 2018, however, only one (NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, launched 18 June 2009) still operates. New lunar polar orbiters are, however, in the planning and development stages: for example, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) plans to launch the Korean Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter in 2020.


"Combining Lunar Polar Orbit Mission with an Unmanned Landing, Case 218," P. W. Conrad, Bellcomm, Inc., 4 April 1966

Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4298, W. David Compton and Charles Benson, NASA, 1983

Korea Aerospace Research Institute: Lunar Exploration (accessed 5 May 2018)

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