With the National Research Council reporting that there is almost no support for President Obama's asteroid mission either within or outside NASA, some organizations are beginning to think about alternate exploration objectives.
The Boeing Company presented a plan that focused on returning American astronauts to the lunar surface, according to NASASpaceFlight.com.
Features of the Boeing return to the moon plan
The Boeing return to the moon program would involve the use of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and the Space Launch System, currently under development, NASASpaceFlight.com reports. The two other major elements would consist of the deep space station or what Boeing refers to as the "Earth-Moon Lagrangian point Platform" and a reusable lunar lander capable of taking up to three astronauts between the lunar surface and the EMLP. The plan would also combine two approaches to deep space travel that have been argued about by space advocates: use of a heavy lift vehicle and in-space refueling. The principle result is that each mission would require only one launch of an SLS, making the exploration program cheaper and simpler.
Return to the moon mission manifest
The first stage would involve the deployment of the EMLP, likely consisting of spare International Space Station modules and some other hardware, to the Earth Moon Lagrange 2 point, where the gravity of the Earth and moon cancel each other out behind the lunar farside, according to NASASpaceFlight.com.
Then an SLS will launch a crew of astronauts to the EMLP on board an Orion to activate the facility and check out its systems. While there, the astronauts are there they would likely practice tele-operating robots on the lunar surface to perform a number of exploration activities, partly as practice for going to Mars.
The second manned mission would use a SLS to launch another crew in an Orion and the lunar lander,. The latter would not be fueled.
The third and subsequent missions would use an SLS to launch a crew in an Orion and something called the In-Space Stage that would contain the fuel and other consumables for the lunar lander. The In-Space Stage would transfer the fuel to the lunar lander. Then up to three astronauts would transfer to the lander and then take it to the lunar surface for a seven-day stay.
There is another variant that involves deploying the deep space station to a high lunar orbit.
There are a number of unanswered questions in the Boeing presentation as related in the NASASpaceFlight.com article. How many times will the lunar lander be reused before it needs replacing? Can the architecture be used to deploy other assets to the lunar surface, such as hab modules and mining equipment? Can the architecture transition to an arrangement where fuel can be derived from lunar water? Boeing's plan uses methane and liquid oxygen as fuel for the lunar lander because they are cheaper and safer to use that liquid hydrogen and easier to store. A NASA website about a lunar lander prototype called Morpheus suggests that methane might be created from lunar water and that the International Space Station creates methane as waste gas which could be used instead as fuel.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.