Work on first step in restarting the moon’s cycle of activity is expected to last two years.
A new United Launch Alliance rocket that will carry the first spacecraft to the moon since the Apollo era is set to be launched in February 2019, the official start of a two-year process to resume exploration.
A 60-page contract between NASA and United Launch Alliance states the new Centaur rocket will be initially leased to study ways to return the moon’s gravity well to a state where human habitation and exploration can resume.
Initially, the launch will carry a demonstration payload. A full-scale mission is expected to follow in the 2020s. The Centaur, once it lands on the moon, will be able to land and then land again. It will also be able to take off from a platform on the moon’s surface and return for another rendezvous, using reverse thrust and the brakes of a lander. The Centaur’s construction is all in line with what was done by astronauts as part of the Apollo missions.
The investigation into the Centaur launch date has been an intense one. On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted to declare that the space agency’s revitalisation programme has brought precious little value to the American public and therefore should not be continued. It is not clear, however, whether that vote would have any practical effect or if Congress would ultimately decide to abandon the programme.
NASA had been planning on its new programme going ahead from 2019 or 2020. But as the programme rolled on, NASA staff looked at the concept of actually launching a Centaur in the 2020s rather than the first quarter of 2019 as planned. By the end of the year, scientists had looked at multiple options including that of building a craft that could land on a site on the moon without having to ride Centaur into space.
In terms of the proposed launch date for the Centaur, Nasa’s associate administrator for exploration, Alan Stern, said that the start of the new phase would be accelerated by a couple of months. But Nasa executives would still prefer to launch the Centaur before February 2019 rather than March 2019. In the absence of the lunar launch, it will remain on earth.
The question of return to the moon is particularly relevant to Nasa given that it began the space race at the end of the 20th century. But the decision by the Soviet Union to retire its satellite, Sputnik 1, on 2 October 1957 was seen as the beginning of the end of the space race and it saw the USA’s close relationship with the USSR began to fray.
Since then, NASA has maintained a close relationship with Russia, and in the 1980s conducted a series of space shuttle missions. But relations were recently strained over a spy scandal involving Russian agents using the agency’s St Louis facility to run a surveillance operation.
The new era at Nasa began in January when Donald Trump was elected to the US presidency. He has vowed to send astronauts back to the moon to establish an Earth orbiting outpost. He signed an executive order on 5 April calling for the return of human exploration to the moon to help maintain American leadership in space.