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Jetting Through Space
Kathryn Hansen
Finding More Power Print Exclusive

Four months after President Kennedy’s January 1961 inauguration, he announced in a message to Congress the goal to land humans on the moon before the end of the decade. Fueled by a so-called “space race” with the Soviet Union, NASA developed the spacecraft for the Apollo missions and in 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong successfully landed on the moon, where Armstrong took his famed “one giant leap for mankind.”

The next generation of vehicles to transport astronauts to the moon and beyond include the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), pictured here leaving the moon in an artist’s interpretation. Companies are currently competing for the final NASA contract to build the CEV. Image is courtesy of Northrop Grumman.

More than four decades later, President Bush announced on Jan. 4, 2004, his vision to return humans to the “moon, Mars and beyond.” For the past two years, the race has been on. Without the Cold War era impetus, however, NASA is searching for new ways to motivate development of innovative new vehicles to fly humans to the moon. The agency is now encouraging competition not only through awarding multimillion dollar design contracts, but also through smaller competitions with prize money. At the same time, inventors are testing new fuels and vehicle designs to take humans back to the moon and eventually on to Mars.

A face off
On Sept. 19, 2005, NASA rolled out a preliminary design for a new vehicle to return astronauts to the moon no later than 2020, as called for by Bush’s vision for space exploration. Called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), the early design is like the Apollo spacecraft, a collective “modular design” with separate components.

With the boost of Saturn rockets, the Apollo missions launched with multiple modules at once — a Command Module that supported the astronauts throughout most of the mission, and an attached Lunar Module to actually land on the moon’s surface and then return to the main craft. Before returning to Earth, astronauts jettisoned the Lunar Module and returned with the Command Module.

The preliminary CEV design incorporates the successful capsule-based design of Apollo’s lander, and borrows the favorable launching system from the space shuttle. Unlike for Apollo, however, the crew would launch in a separate vehicle and, once in low orbit around Earth, would dock with the lunar capsule before heading to the moon. Once in lunar orbit, the crew would separate in a lunar module, used to land on the moon and return to the main craft.

Companies that worked with NASA to arrive at the early design are now dueling for selection by NASA to become the prime contractor to refine, develop and produce the CEV. On one side is Lockheed Martin, and on the other, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, which have joined forces.

The groups have been working on their proposals since June 2005, and NASA recently extended their proposal deadline an extra five months to August 2006, costing the administration an extra $17.5 million per contract in addition to the original $29 million per-contract price tag. “We are in a competitive phase of the CEV competition,” says Brooks McKinney, a Northrop Grumman spokesperson, explaining why neither team is willing to discuss its approach to the CEV design.

NASA, however, provided the groups with some basic specifications. The early design showed that the preferred vehicle should carry at least six astronauts to the International Space Station, so that once NASA retires the space shuttle, crews can continue servicing the station. The lunar lander part of the vehicle should carry four astronauts to the moon, and have the ability to be reused. NASA also asked that the CEV measure no larger than 5 meters across, which is still larger in volume than Apollo’s Lunar Module, which carried two astronauts.

NASA expects to select the winning team sometime in August, but they also leave open the option of extending the competition through December, potentially bringing the per-contract total even higher. Time will tell what new ideas and refinements the companies will decide will best fly humans back to the moon.

Other motivation
In October 2004, SpaceShipOne, developed by the innovative aviation company Scaled Composites and largely funded by billionaire Paul Allen, carried three crewmembers to a suborbital altitude of 100 kilometers and then repeated the feat within two weeks — making the ship the first privately funded, reusable manned craft to fly to the boundary of Earth’s atmosphere and space. This feat earned SpaceShipOne the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

The prize was just the beginning for the X Prize Foundation — a nonprofit group, based in St. Louis, Mo., developed to encourage a space race within private industry. The foundation models itself after aviation prizes offered in the early 1900s that encouraged innovative designs that lead to modern airplanes. The Ansari X Prize has become “the model for the use of prizes in the space arena,” says Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation.

The latest X Prize will focus on technologies to help NASA return to the moon. The foundation approached NASA in 2003 with the idea that NASA should be creating prizes for space technology innovation and helped them create the Centennial Challenges program, which now contributes $10 million a year for contests that involve nongovernmental teams advancing new technologies.

Announced on May 5, that partnership spawned the foundation’s new Lunar Lander Analog Competition, scheduled to culminate Oct. 20 and Oct. 21 in Las Cruces, N.M., at the annual X Prize Cup. Teams will demonstrate the ability of their newly engineered craft to launch vertically to an altitude of about 45 meters, hover and maneuver a horizontal distance of about 75 meters before landing, and then repeat the feat.

“This is a way of really stimulating some innovative thinking from entrepreneurial companies to help provide the technology and reduce the cost,” Diamandis says. “The Centennial Challenges program is providing the capital, but X Prize is creating and running the Lunar Lander challenge.”

Centennial Challenge will award $2 million to the winner of the Lunar Lander Analog Competition. The prize may fall short of Ansari’s $10 million, but so far it has attracted the attention of more than 20 companies that have contacted the X Prize Foundation with an interest in competing, Diamandis says.

The prize is intended to “spark” the involvement of young, small entrepreneurial companies, rather than the “typical” large government contractors, Diamandis says. He says the competition is not directly related to the CEV, but there is “no question,” that Bush’s vision is causing NASA to focus on lunar lander vehicles, and he expects small entrepreneurial companies to be “assimilated” by the competition — meaning that technology they develop could become part of the larger lunar exploration contracts.

“I think we’re going to see a lot of excitement, and a lot of new technology being developed,” Diamandis says. “I’m most interested in making sure that people around the world recognize that small entrepreneurial companies can build rocket-powered vehicles that can eventually land us on the moon.”

Pioneer Astronautics in Lakewood, Colo., is one such company. Robert Zubrin founded the company in 1996 after leaving Lockheed Martin, where he worked for seven years as an aerospace engineer and designed space propulsion concepts that won him various awards.

Whether Pioneer Astronautics will be a contender in the Lunar Lander Analog Competition or not remains to be seen. “We are thinking about it,” Zubrin says, depending on the company’s workload. The company is stretched thin with a small staff, but that small staff is key to reducing middle management issues and streamlining decisions, he says. Also, although some of company’s technologies apply to lunar missions, Zubrin has his eyes set on a more distant target: propelling humans to Mars and back again.

Fueling the future
Beyond plans to return to the moon, NASA has started thinking about getting to Mars. NASA’s early design plans for the CEV vaguely address a Mars mission, but indicate that while the design would be similar to the CEV design, it would have minor differences, such as shuttling supplies ahead of the crew on separate cargo vehicles. The multiple crafts traveling over the required two-and-a-half years of the mission will need fuel, and lots of it.

Looking toward the martian atmosphere, Pioneer Astronautics thinks it may have found a solution to this challenge. In an ongoing contract with NASA, Pioneer is working to make viable the production of spacecraft fuel from gases available in Mars’ atmosphere. The spaceship will require fuel to get home, and producing fuel once astronauts arrive on Mars would reduce the amount of fuel they need to carry from Earth.

Mars’ atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide (compared to Earth’s 0.03 percent). Adding hydrogen can produce a simple reaction that breaks down the carbon dioxide into two components: methane — a sought-after fuel, which can be stored as liquid below about minus 163 degrees Celsius — and water, which can be further broken down and recycled back into the entire process.

Zubrin’s team currently can produce about a kilogram in weight, or a volume of about 30 cubic centimeters, of liquid methane propellant a day. That’s enough fuel to aid unmanned sample return missions. For longer human missions to Mars, however, they will need to produce close to 100 kilograms a day, “but we can scale up,” Zubrin says.

Scaling up current production by a factor of 100 would increase the amount of payload a craft can carry to Mars by a factor of four and reduce the number of multibillion-dollar rockets needed at launch, Zubrin says. That’s because the methane-oxygen fuel provides a high exhaust velocity, or more push for a given amount of fuel, than most fuels (see sidebar, Print Exclusive). “It’s the enabling technology for human Mars exploration,” he says.

The “real” test
Once on Mars, the question remains how astronauts should transport themselves around the planet. Mars is a “big place,” Zubrin says, “We’re not going to explore it on foot.”

The nonprofit Mars Society group, headquartered in Lakewood, Colo., thinks that martian mobility is just one of the issues that can be worked out by simulating martian conditions on Earth — one of the topics up for discussion at the society’s ninth annual meeting starting Aug. 3 in Washington, D.C. To prepare for martian exploration, scientists want to figure out, based on real-world experience, which systems they should begin to design, says Zubrin, who is president of the society.

Engineers at Pioneer Astronautics test a vertical takeoff flying machine, called the “gashopper,” which uses carbon dioxide for propellant. On Mars, the system could refuel each time it lands by running a pump to collect the gas from Mars’ carbon-dioxide-rich atmosphere. Photo is by Robert Zubrin.

The society created two virtual Mars stations: one on Devon Island in Nunavut, Canada, and the other in the desert near Hanksville, Utah. The sandy and rocky desert and cold and icy Arctic environments pose similar conditions for explorers to those they would face on Mars. Volunteers, either conducting research as part of their own proposal or supporting an existing investigation, try to act as if they were actually on Mars, which means suiting up every time they leave the habitat. “We throw as much Mars-mission-type constraints at them as we can and in so doing, we try to figure out what would actually work on Mars and what wouldn’t,” Zubrin says.

Most recently in April, a group of 16 Austrian volunteers, from engineers and physicists to pilots and photographers, were selected from 182 applicants to visit the Utah station and conduct 20 planned experiments. Part of this AustroMars mission was devoted to testing the aerobot — an unmanned robotic reconnaissance flyer to be used to scout out places of interest on Mars. Next, an unmanned rover took to the desert to find out if the locations scouted out by the flyer were worth a closer look. Finally, deciding that the area was scientifically interesting, the Austrian “astronauts” suited up and tested the utility of taking ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) out to the site.

The ATVs worked well, says Norbert Frischauf, executive boardmember of the Austrian Space Forum, which organized AustroMars. “The four-wheel drive proved to be essential, especially when driving up certain dunes,” he says, and “we had a hell of a lot of fun rushing with them through the desert.”

The possibility of becoming stuck in dunes is one reason that Zubrin prefers ATVs over other options, such as a larger, enclosed SUV, or even an RV, which could contain a mobile lab. The disadvantage of ATVs, however, is that explorers are restricted from staying out in the field overnight, Zubrin says. But at the end of the day, he says, an RV could not go half as far, “because they can’t penetrate through difficult terrain like an ATV can.”

Still, the ATVs run on gasoline engines that burn the oxygen from the air, which would not be possible on Mars, Zubrin says. ATVs would have to be reengineered to run on an alternative energy source, such as methane-based fuel cells. The process involves a reaction between liquid methane and water to produce the cell’s electrical output, and some companies are already considering using the long-lasting device in place of lithium-ion batteries for technologies such as cell phones.

Political uncertainty
Despite the strides made toward new vehicles and fuels to carry humans to the moon and Mars, when those technologies could actually be used remains a political question, Zubrin says. Following through with Bush’s timeline to return to the moon by 2020 will be up to the presidential administrations that follow Bush, and Zubrin is not entirely optimistic. “On Jan. 21, 2009, people will care as much about George Bush’s opinion on the space program as they currently care about Jimmy Carter’s,” Zubrin says.

NASA administrator Michael Griffin announced Feb. 6, however, that given the proposed fiscal year 2007 budget, NASA and industry have “a real opportunity” to bring the CEV online sooner than 2014. Funding will be pulled from other NASA endeavors, however, including from International Space Station research. And time will tell how much cost comes into play in NASA’s selection of a company to ultimately build the CEV.

The timing for humans traveling to Mars is even less certain. Still, scientists continue to address the technical challenges that would come with such a mission, including shielding both spacecraft and astronauts from radiation during the long journey.

Zubrin says that it is feasible to arrive at technologies sufficient to safely transport humans to Mars within 10 years after the start of an official Mars program. “From a technical point of view,” he says, “we’re much better prepared today to send people to Mars than we were to send men to the moon in 1961.”

Hansen is a staff writer for Geotimes.

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