NASA's idea for a space station in lunar orbit takes humanity nowhere (Synopsis)

“We had this whole big beautiful place for discovery, and all we could think to do with it was wipe out everything that made it worth discovering.” -Buzz Aldrin

It’s been more than 40 years since humans last set foot on the Moon. The final space shuttle flight occurred six years ago already, and the International Space Station is set to reach the end of its life a few years from now. At the 33rd Space Symposium last month, NASA announced their new, bold plan for crewed spaceflight: a crewed space station that orbits the Moon.

The Orion capsule would be one of many components on a proposed space station that orbited the Moon, but the scientific and technological payoff would be extraordinarily low. Image credit: NASA / flickr.

While this has the cost advantages of utilizing systems that have already been designed and, in some cases, built, it represents a failure of imagination, vision, and scientific goals. As a result, we’ll be no closer to returning to the Moon, exploring Mars, capturing an asteroid, or any other actual goal we may have.

Concept art of the Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle, originally conceived as a design capable of taking humans to Mars. Rather than repurposing these designs for other, smaller goals, why not go to Mars? Image credit: NASA.

If we want to accomplish something great, it’s up to us to at least attempt it. We need NASA to share that same vision!

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The aim should surely be for a functioning moon colony that has some productive capacity - namely the ability to make iron, aluminium, and titanium from lunar basalt, and hopefully extract volatiles from shadowed craters to make fuel. It's pretty easy to get this stuff into space from the moon, making it a source of materials for Earth orbit, and a way of making other missions (such as Mars) possible.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 18 May 2017 #permalink

Something strange is going on at NASA. Just a month or so ago they announced a HEROX competition, a public call to improve the overall performance of their Pleiades supercomputer system. The call is for improvements of the algorithms for non linear partial differential equations or for software improvements. In their words.."The desired outcome is any approach that can accelerate calculations by a factor of 10-1000x without any decrease in accuracy and while utilizing the existing hardware platform."

So basically.. increase the performance of the supercomputer by 100x ... and how much would you get for this... $15k if you're lucky. $15k!!!!??? I mean... yeah.. ok.. it's not peanuts... but seriously! A software solution that would increase their computational output by 10-1000x.. is worth millions.. if not billions of dollars! To put it in perspective.... if you came up with an algorithm that would improve youtube encoding by "mere" 20% ... or i don't know.. google crawler indexing speed by again couple of tens of %... you would basically become settled for life...

I mean.. for anyone who has the skill and the know-how to even remotely try to execute something like that... 15k is almost an insult.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 18 May 2017 #permalink

In this solar system, humans do not belong anywhere but on Earth or in near-Earth orbit. Even if we were to colonize Mars, it would be cruel to force a human child to grow up there. For our successor species, however -- AI Minds -- it's a different story. The can populate the moon and Mars and the intermundia. Under the threat of approaching asteroids, for we need AI sentinels out there. Now I must confess that last night I posted to hurry things up in the field of Strong AI. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

By Mentifex (Arth… (not verified) on 18 May 2017 #permalink

I think before trying Mars, NASA should try a moon base. I think the easiest way could be transport a (robotic) tunnel boring machine piece by piece to moon, next to a mountain, and bore a long straight tunnel cave. Later it could be divided with airtight doors and converted to a base. A section inside of it could be turned into a greenhouse. Or a separate greenhouse could be constructed in an area next to the base.

The aim should surely be for a functioning moon colony that has some productive capacity – namely the ability to make iron, aluminium, and titanium from lunar basalt,

I think that's somewhat unrealistic. If we can't produce pure ores from basalt on Earth profitably (and AFAIK, we can't), then it would be highly unrealistic to expect a starting moon base to do this.

I think any human space exploration effort - be it a moon base, or space station, or other - should still realistically assume it will be at least 50+ years before the money coming out of the effort will be bigger than the money going in. This does NOT mean (IMO) that we should abandon human exploration; I think we should continue it. But it does mean that I think human space exploration is currently better performed under public/government systems (whose purpose is to spend money for long term, large-scale benefit) rather than private/corporate systems (whole purpose is to pay off investors on a quarterly basis). We are not yet to the point (or barely at the point) where corporate interests can realize a profit for anything beyond LEO satellite delivery.

eric wrote:

This does NOT mean (IMO) that we should abandon human exploration

Why? What is the point of human exploration in space? At this point what can humans learn that robotic probes can't also learn and for far less money? Humans might be better than probes at learning how to get cancer outside the Van Allen belt, but that is about it.

If you really want to blow a ton of money on an ego project, prove you can get an unmanned spaceship to the surface of Mars that is capable of getting back to Earth. Personally I'm against giant ego projects and would much rather see NASA go back to the Faster, Better, Cheaper organizational philosophy.

@ Denier

"Why? What is the point of human exploration..."

because humans don't relate that well with robots. Sure, you can feel glad when you look at some drone somewhere, but it's as inspiring and motivational as watching a dog poop.

Looking and witnessing other humans doing amazing feats is something entirely different. IMO probes and manned missions don't exclude one another. But maybe the most important answer to "why".. is that we want to colonize other planets as species. You might not share that desire and that's fine, but that's the reason why.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 18 May 2017 #permalink

@Sinisa Lazarek #6,
Denier does actually have a good point. Are you serious about doing actual space exploration and science, or highly emotional tear jerker public relations? Because nothing would quite inspire or motivate young audiences like watching people go to mars to asphyxiate and/or starve, die horribly of radiation poisoning etc at the cost of many billions of dollars. That's pretty expensive motivational entertainment. People simply are not very efficient for space travel/exploration.
On the logistical side of the how things are right now, NASA can barely get things into orbit, and you want them to take on projects magnitudes larger than landing on the moon at the height of the very well funded space race? Not a good idea.
Baby steps.
Better propulsion methods might be a good place to start if you seriously want humans in space or on other worlds, you don't jump in the ocean to get to the new world without first having a reliable boat.


Maybe you misunderstood what I was trying to say. I am not saying that Denier doesn't have a point. In fact, I do share part of that sentiment. Note that I said... IMO they DON'T EXCLUDE one another. For just science, yes.. a machine is cheaper, safer.. etc...

Read again my last sentence... end goal.. or end need is colonization... spreading. Not in 5 years.. not in 50 years... but maybe in 300 or more. But you have to start somewhere.

What I'm sensing from both you and Denier is a very near-term considerations. But what the end goal is way beyond NASA or current year-to-year politics. And it's not space-travel just for sake of taking pretty pictures.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 18 May 2017 #permalink


"People simply are not very efficient for space travel/exploration."

People simply aren't very efficient for traveling on water. Didn't stop humans from colonizing America i.e. or Australia. That's why we build.. cause we aren't very efficient at anything really.. other than eating and sleeping...and some thinking.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 18 May 2017 #permalink


In fairness, people during the 16th-18th centuries did not have the technological capability we now have. There was no means of communication with an expedition after it left port, and of course no means to send unmanned ships out on the expedition in the first place. Had it been technologically possible, it would certainly have been a logical first step to send out unmanned expeditions to places like America or Australia to find out everything that could be found out before sending human expeditions. Certainly, that's the most logical thing to do now, especially given the limited payload for a space mission. An unmanned expedition does not need life support systems, it does not need to carry food and water, and it need not even carry fuel for a return trip.

Don't get me wrong; human colonization of space is a worthy goal. However, should we not find out everything it is possible to find out about a potential colonization destination before sending the humans out to make a colony? Space travel is risky, and likely always will be. Should we not reduce that risk as much as possible? Of course, it will be necessary to send actual manned missions at some point if we are to establish colonies, but IMO, that point is far in the future, probably far enough that we won't live to see it. We can and should lay the ground work now, though, and start sending unmanned robotic missions.


That's a good point. The moon is much closer and cheaper to get to than Mars. The lunar environment presents challenges that are similar to those that would have to be met by a Mars colony. Mars has an atmosphere, but it would be essentially useless in terms of supporting human life. It contains no oxygen and is thin enough that pressure suits would still be necessary. Both environments have extreme cold temperatures to deal with. If it turns out that we cannot make a go of a lunar station, then it makes sense that a Mars colony would be a no-go as well.

Why? What is the point of human exploration in space?

I tend to think that the space industry and colonization can pay off...eventually. Its just going to require a significant investment to get to that point. Decades and $trillions. Which, as I said ,probably means it's better performed by governments than corporate interests...for now.

At Least, Go For A Moon Polar Base!
Agreed to all. Going to Mars would be nice, but the irradiation problem, in connection with the low speed of our chemical rockets, makes it practically impossible: crews would be exposed to radiation… Except if we decided to spend serious money, sending first robotic missions to establish a deep and extensive Martian base.

With the Moon the same techniques could be used as on Mars with the advantage that with the Moon the radiation problem would not be: the trip is short enough; robotic mission could dig burrows there. Moreover, the Moon is within the range of ionic propulsion, which is very slow, but highly efficient (to bring cargo from Low Earth Orbit)..

Thanks to its CO2 atmosphere, fuel could be made on Mars, by decomposing CO2. So Mars should be the long term objective.

Spending serious money for faster propulsion could be another option. Then of course, the possibility of life on water gorgeous Europa and Enceladus should be explored ASAP.

Going to the Moon is feasible if and only if there is accessible water in sufficient quantities. So this would have to be established first by exploring polar craters, extensively, and developing techniques to extract oxygen and minerals from Lunar regolith, and having enough PV energy to do so! Not a quick and easy project!

By Patrice Ayme (not verified) on 19 May 2017 #permalink