Monday, January 7, 2019

Fly Me To The Moon

Earth Rising
For thousands of years Earthlings have been staring up at the Moon but it was only 50 years ago on Xmas Eve 2018 that we got to look at ourselves from the Moon with the first colour picture of Earth taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts who were orbiting the Moon in a preparatory mission for the actual landing to follow on July 20th 1969. With the 50th anniversary of that Moon landing (mankind's  highest ever signature achievement) a return to the Moon is now under way for 2019.  Already the Chinese have landed on the "dark side" (the side we never see from earth because the moon orbit follows ours) with a new lunar lander and the U.S. is also planning to do the same later in the year after having just landed the InSight spacecraft on Mars.

Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway
But it's human landings on the lunar surface and other places that really matter to the folks back home and the folks at NASA are looking at the Moon now with fresh eyes. The plan is to develop an infrastructure that will orbit the Moon and support landings on its surface along with missions to Mars and beyond. Called the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway it will function much like the International Space Station does with astronauts coming and going from Earth along with deliveries of food and other essentials and taking back the fruits of any lunar mining activities. 

International Space Station
The International Space Station, which orbits Earth at an altitude of approximately 400 km was launched into orbit in 1998 and since 2000 has been inhabited by astronauts from Europe, Japan, Russia, the U.S. and Canada. While on board they have conducted a wide variety of tests on everything from weightlessness to growing food not to mention practicing their docking skills, all of which will stand them in good stead when the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway goes into operation. The only difference of course being that instead of being 400 km from Earth the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway will be 384,000 km away. Mars, by comparison is between 50 and 400 million km away from Earth depending on where the two planets are on their respective orbits.

Space X Falcon 9 Rocket Launch
Servicing these various space stations and orbital platforms is of course the most tricky part of the enterprise and where the private sector has come to play such a key role. By developing re-usable rocket technology, companies like Space X (owned by Elon Musk of Tesla fame) have dramatically cut the costs of rocket launches and become the new principal providers of supply services to the International Space Station. 

Space X Dragon 2
After being the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station in 2012 Space X is scheduled to bring astronauts to the Space Station this June aboard the first crewed version of the Dragon spaceship. As another partner in NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program, Boeing is also scheduled to follow suit later in August using its Starliner spacecraft. 

Boeing Starliner
While flying through outer space at the wheel of a Tesla may not be the most practical method of space travel, the launch of Starman into interplanetary orbit last year was great publicity for the space tourism industry and highlights the partnership with NASA's Commercial Crew & Cargo Program which has the specific goal of "achieving safe, reliable, cost effective access to low-Earth orbit and create a market environment in which commercial space transportation services are available to Government and private sector customers." In other words space tourism is on with the blessing of the government.

Starman and the Tesla Roadster
In addition to supplying the Dragon spaceship for the International Space Station, Space X plans to build a 100 passenger version called Starship to fly people to Mars. Already they have announced their first passenger, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa who will take passengers around the Moon in the Starship starting in the 2020's. Not to be outdone by Space X, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic VSS Unity Spaceliner made its first successful flight into outer space which is defined as an altitude of 50 miles or 80 km above Earth. Tickets for a ride on the VSS Unity are now being sold for $250,000.00 each and already over 700 people have made their downpayment.

Space X Starship

Virgin Galactic VSS Unity
While interest in the Moon, Mars and outer space has waned over the years it's clearly back in the forefront now that technology is starting to catch up with people's imaginations. With all the bad news on Earth a getaway into outer space seems like a very refreshing idea. A $250,000.00 space fare is peanuts compared to the $35 million Guy Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil spent for a visit to the International Space Station in 2009 but hopefully it will come down a lot more so the average person can afford a space flight. After first landing there 50 years ago 2019 looks to be a landmark year for people wanting to think about flying themselves to the Moon.