The Russians And The Americans Only Want The Moon

For the generations who lived through the decades of the Space Race, the skies above were an exciting place. Every month it seemed there was a new announcement of a new mission, a Lunar landing, new pictures from a planetary probe, or fresh feats of derring-do from astronauts or cosmonauts. Space was inspiring!

As we moved through the Shuttle, Mir, and ISS eras, the fascinating work didn’t stop. The Mars rovers, the Cassini probe, the Chang-e Lunar mission, or the Hubble telescope, to name just a very few. But somehow along the way, space lost the shine for the general public, it became routine, mundane, even. Shuttle missions and Soyuz craft carrying ISS astronauts became just another feature on the news, eventually consigned only to the technology section of the broadcaster’s website. The TV comedy Big Bang Theory derived humor from this, when a character becomes an ISS astronaut, yet is still a nobody on his return to Earth.

If you yearn for a bit of that excitement from the Space Race days you may just find it in another story tucked away in the tech sections, though it comes from a collaboration rather than a competition. NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have announced a partnership to take what will be the next step towards a future of deep space exploration, to place a manned space station in a Lunar orbit. The idea is that it would serve first as a valuable research platform for missions in deeper space than the current relatively low orbit of the ISS, and then as a launch base for both lunar missions and those further afield in the Solar System.

Of course, there is no lunar-orbiting station, yet. There is a long and inglorious history of proposed space missions that never left the drawing board, and this one may yet prove to be the next addition to it. But what are real are the two indisputable facts, that NASA and Roscosmos have inked this partnership, and eventually there will have to be a replacement for the ISS. This project stands a good chance of being that replacement, which makes it of great interest to anyone with an interest in technology. It’s a little out of the world of usual Hackaday fodder, but if you are like us you will want to believe that one day it will be launched.

Even with a lunar orbiting space station, it will be a very long time indeed before we see manned missions going significantly further into the Solar system. Perhaps another approach is required to go further, a laser-driven silicon wafer aimed at a nearby star.

Moon image: 阿爾特斯 [CC BY-SA 3.0].

32 thoughts on “The Russians And The Americans Only Want The Moon

  1. The ISS, being modular, could last for as long as the agencies involved care to make it last by simply repairing and replacing modules as needed. (simple in concept but not so much in practice)
    The real question is “will they?”.
    History would lead us to believe that they will de-orbit it (aka: bomb Australia) when they are done and on to the next Shiny Space Thing.

    1. Maintaining ISS costs money, a fair bit of it. The hypothetical Lunar station would cost even more money. Since no funding is bottomless, the ISS would be scrapped in order to free up the maintenance costs.

      What I find weird is that China is not being asked to take part in this, either in the Lunar station or to join in on the ISS, so that it won’t have to be scrapped.

        1. China has its own space station because they were not allowed to join the ISS project.
          It’s funny, trying to ban them from technology forces them to become more advanced thereby having the opposite effect.

          I bet China will have hyperloops decades before the western world too.

    2. Were that really true then every Shuttle(ET) and Saturn V(stage 3) launch would have meant a very large space station module delivered to orbit, I think the Saturn stage two was proposed as a second wet lab hab for a super-Skylab. But we just threw these out rather than choosing to have the sealed materials to make a space station roughly the size of a super-carrier. 134 flights of the 35metric ton orange external tank, a very large and strong aerospace grade sealed and designed for high pressure spacecraft already safely in LEO, all were deorbited and junked into the sea over the course of the shuttle program(last Challenger’s ET didn’t make orbit but Columbia’s last one did).
      I don’t see having a spacecraft crew rewiring and refitting a space station as effective use of a very small crew, they dont want to send larger crews or solve the lifeboat issue, and besides Lockheed and Boeing like pulling trillions to assemble for expensive government aerospace contracts.

      1. Using those external fuel tanks would have saved a immense amount of time and cost. All NASA had to do is send up a work crew to seal the insides, attack the appropriate equipment inside and outside and you’re ready to go.

        Though I would have had the nose of the tank modified to accept a docking port/airlock pod for the workers.

        The downside would be that most of the work would be done by the equivalent of space hard hats which would piss off the astronaut corps to no end and the big two aerospace giants would lose hundreds of billions.

        1. The external/upper stage tanks were not fit-for-purpose to be used as a space station once empty. The modules of the ISS are designed with a whole pile of insulation and shielding as well as a human-rated pressure vessel.

          the tanks were just that, a tank. It may have been a pressure vessel but there was barely thermal insulation, just enough to try and keep icing at bay during tanking and launch, certainly not sufficient to keep micrometeoroids at bay for an extended period of time.

          Realistically, I think SpaceX will have the BFR stack ready for cargo (at least) by the time NASA/Roscosmos are ready to start launching modules into lunar orbit, and knowing that I think the near 9M diameter payload size will come into play for a much roomier and cheaper lunar space station. the SLS is just too much pork to really be cost effective for anything

      1. One of the reasons most proposals have been to build a station on the surface of mars rather than the surface of the moon, has been the fact that on mars it’s easier to acquire the base chemicals for life support and fuel. It’s also a little more protected.

  2. Elon Musk just presented a timeline for going to Mars in his recent presentation at the International Astronautic Conference (it’s on YT – worth to watch). He plans to go there quite soon with his ‘BFR’, a mega rocket which will be propelled by compressed cow farts, if I understood correctly. SpaceX is planning exploratory Mars missions for 2022 and manned missions for 2024. If that ambitious timeline works out, we don’t have to wait too long until we see manned missions going further in the solar system. I wish him sincerely good luck!

      1. Also, this process would be easily used on earth to make all BFR launches carbon neutral… Or if you wanna set up some elaborate methane capture systems around cattle farms to harvest the farts then it can be carbon negative and eligible for carbon credits in an emissions trading scheme

  3. The cheapest way to go would be simply to launch several modular booster rocket pods that could propel the ISS to 25,000 mph escape velocity on a trajectory toward lunar orbit. Rockets would also be required to establish a lunar orbit for the ISS. The expensive part would be the re-supply missions and astronaut replacement flights. More modules could be flown into lunar orbit over time to enhance/update the ISS. I do not see this happening any time soon.

    1. This is really only cheaper in the long run, and I think it’s really only good for a very temporary solution.

      Only problem I can see is the age of the ISS and the fact that it’s be far outside it’s normal resupply range.

      You can’t replace EVERYTHING on board the ISS, so eventually something’s going to be too old to fly. You might get away with swapping old modules out, but pretty soon it’s a rebuild job and you might as well have started with longer-lived modules.

      The ISS’ systems are also made to be closer to earth, so stuff is probably designed with more frequent resupplies (or easier emergency resupplies) in mind. I’d also think that the level of shielding on the ISS might not be sufficient, being that far from earth’s protective magnetic field, no longer nestled in low earth orbit.

      What I can see this plan being useful for, however, is to ship the ISS out there with the idea that it’ll only last a few months, then get impacted into the moon. It’s probably easier to build a new station on the end of another one with existing maneuvering, livable space, and power. And at this point we’re pretty sure I think that nothing’s living on the moon, so it might be palatable to allow the risk of contamination of the lunar surface via what’s left of the ISS.

    2. ISS as built is completely unsuitable for the radiation environment in lunar orbit; it would either need to be heavily modified to shield people and electronics, or lightly modified to shield electronics (or replace them with more resistant electronics) and rotate astronauts much more frequently. Neither one strikes me as a cheaper solution, long-term, than designing and building a new space station specifically for lunar orbit.

  4. Why?

    My understanding is that the moon’s gravity is much “lumpier” than Earth due to it’s density varying more by location. As a result things that orbit the moon burn through their fuel much quicker than things in Earth orbit just to maintain. Constantly resupplying fuel to lunar orbit is going to be expensive. Might it be better to just build a base on the surface of the moon itself?

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