Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Moonbase That Almost Was

Moonbase Apollo (1968)
[...] Not widely known is that in 1968, as it prepared its first piloted Apollo flight – Apollo 7, which flew in September 1968 – and its Fiscal Year 1970 submission to the Bureau of the Budget, NASA briefly considered an alternate approach to Apollo. Had it been pursued, it might have laid the technological foundation for a permanent moon base in 1980. After perhaps three Apollo exploration missions to different landing sites, NASA would have dispatched a series of Apollo missions to a single site.

In addition to intensively exploring the selected site, the astronauts would have performed engineering and life sciences experiments, assessed the lunar environment for radio and optical astronomy, and experimented with resource exploitation. The single site revisit missions would have played the role for a permanent lunar base that Gemini played for Apollo; that is, it would have enabled NASA to acquire operational skills needed for its next step forward in space.

The single site revisit concept – sometimes called the “lunar station” concept – got its start some time before 30 April 1968, when the NASA-appointed Lunar Exploration Working Group (LEWG) presented it to the Apollo Planning Steering Group. Lee Scherer, director of the Apollo Lunar Exploration Office at NASA Headquarters, asked mission planner Rodney Johnson on 7 May to chair a 10-man Single Site Working Sub-Group of the LEWG. He directed Johnson to present a progress report at the LEWG meeting scheduled for the third week of May. The Sub-Group held a two-day meeting on 12-13 May and presented results of its brief study at the 22 May LEWG meeting. It issued a revised final report on 4 June 1968.

The Sub-Group’s report began by declaring that a 12-man “International Lunar Scientific Observatory” in 1980 could become a new “Major Agency Goal” for NASA. The single site revisit missions, it continued, would pave the way by demonstrating the value of a permanent lunar base. The Sub-Group then examined four options for carrying out its single site revisit program, which it labeled 0, A, B, and C. All would employ spacecraft and standard Saturn V launch vehicles the space agency had already ordered for Apollo. [...]
The rest of the article is about the plans, with some neat diagrams of next-stage Lunar exploration vehicles similar to the originals, but more advanced. But alas, it was not to be. We got the Space Shuttle instead, which was interesting, but in many ways a divergent distraction from real space exploration. If Apollo had kept going... well, we'll never know, because it didn't.

And won't likely start again any time soon. Not by us, anyway. The Chinese like to think they will, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting.

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