To the Moon: 45 years after Apollo 11

A new generation of manned missions to the moon by NASA is not a certainty, but many of the parts are being put into place to make it possible.

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) if built to completion, might return us someday to the moon. Art: NASA

Five years ago, on the fortieth anniversarry of the Apollo 11 landing, I wrote a series of articles titled "To the Moon: How we Built the Technologies". In it, I profiled the key companies that contributed to the space program in order to make the moon missions a reality.

As part of those articles, I also talked a bit about where those companies are now and where our space program was going next. In 2009, the future of our space program was uncertain and our president was in his second year of his first term in office.

From a political and economic perspective, the world looked a bit different then as it does now, and the priorities of this country were also a bit different.

The Space Shuttle was due for retirement in 2009. That actually happened in 2011, and I wrote an article at the time about why it was necessary. At the time, the successor to the shuttle and also the Apollo was the Constellation Program, which would have had all of the components needed to return this country to having its own launch capability for manned spaceflight.

When I wrote those articles, the findings of the Augustine Committee had not yet been released. As a result of those findings, the Constellation Program was cancelled in favor of a new program, the Space Launch System, which was announced in September of 2011.

While both are multiple configuration heavy-lift systems, the SLS differs from the Constellation program in that it uses more of the Space Shuttle's technology, primarily the Rocketdyne RS-25D/E re-usable SSMEs on the main boost stage as opposed to the cheaper, throw-away Rocketdyne RS-68 used currently on the Delta IV heavy lift launch platform. 

The various block configurations of the Space Launch System. Art: NASA

The upper Earth Departure Stage of the SLS, like the Constellation, is likely to incorporate the Rocketdyne J-2X, which is a direct descendant of the upper-stage engine used in the Apollo program.

The SLS is also going to incorporate solid rocket boosters (SRBs) similar to that of the Space Shuttle which are manufactured by ATK.

While there is great political debate regarding which of the launch system configurations was better or more affordable, Aerojet Rocketdyne is again 45 years later in the driver's seat for the main propulsion systems and Boeing, the inheritor of all of the companies that built the Saturn V itself, is again on the top for building the cryogenic stages and the avionics systems for the SLS.

And while the Constellation program was cancelled, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) is still being developed by Lockheed-Martin, in partnership with Boeing. The MPCV would not only be suitable for low earth orbit missions, but potentially also for manned moon missions as well.

A competition for prime contractor for the liquid fuel rockets used in the the SLS Block II main boost stage configurations is underway and is likely complete in 2015. Originally, the two main competitors were Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne.

Aerojet's design uses a group configuration of a domestically-licensed and produced version of a Russian NK-33 engine, whereas Rocketdyne's design is a modernized version of the Saturn V's F-1.

The merger of the two companies in 2013 have now made the victor of this competition something of a formality, regardless of which design actually wins out. I think many of us would like to see the F-1 fly again, simply as a statement of national pride.

Aerojet Rocketdyne's engines may even become more important for the future of space exploration now that relations with Russia may have been completely derailed due to recent developments in Ukraine. 

Our supply of the NPO Energomash RD-180s used in the United Launch Aliiance Atlas V heavy lift rocket is dwindling, and will likely require replacement if Russia refuses to sell us new ones, particulary if broad sanctions by our government against entire sections of their economy are enacted.

There has been no talk yet of retrofitting the Atlas V with Rocketdyne engines, but this may very well be what comes to pass due to our need for routine military payload launches. 

While the SLS itself is being fleshed out, we still don't have much of a plan for a manned lander like we had for Apollo 11. The Altair, the spiritual successor to Grumman's LEM, which was only in very early development stages at the time my articles were written, was effectively cancelled when the Constellation program was deep-sixed by the Obama administration.

The SLS's prime objective, in the immediate term, is to get us a launch vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle, and in the longer term, to give us a platform for eventually achieving a manned landing on Mars.

Private firms such as SpaceX with their manned and unmanned version of the Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters, as well as the United Launch Alliance and the Orbital Sciences Cygnus will hopefully help us get through any gaps that might arise by any potential denial of access to the Russian Soyuz and Progress systems for missions to the International Space Station and for other orbital missions.

In addition to the Dragon, the NASA Commercial Crew Program is actively selecting and funding designs for crew to low earth orbit, including those from Boeing for its CST-100, which could potentially eliminate our dependence on Soyuz and Progress.

But hope for a future manned moon landing is not lost. In January 2013, Northrop Grumman, in conjunction wtih a new private aerospace firm, Golden Spike, announced their plans for developing a design for a new lander, and formed an advisory board for planning the next generation of lunar missions.

It is unclear as to whether these missions and any lander design that is proposed will come to fruition and whether the SLS will carry any of them, but if the American public wills it, anything is possible.

Will NASA again return us to the moon? Or will it be private industry, or a combination thereof? Talk Back and Let Me Know.