State of modern space travel

How good is our current space tech?
17 December 2019

Interview with 

Torsten Kriening, Spacewatch Global & Philippe Schoonejans, European Space Agency


A moon rising over a cityscape


So we know what might be on the Moon for us, and the potentials that await us if can manage it. But is that enough in itself for a full set of missions to the Moon, and why does it have to be humans, and not robots? To find out more about the state of technology the moment, and what it’s going to take to blast us onto the Moon, Nadeem Gabbani spoke to Torsten Kriening of Spacewatch Global, and Phillipe Schoonejans of the European Space Agency...

Torsten -  What is in it for us? I mean that's the big question when you talk with people which are not like me, space geeks. What's in it for me, why should we spend these euros, these dollars on space programs? What comes back? First of all, it's the innovation, it's the inspiration, it's the imagination when we do really the next big thing. It's not just nations/agencies that are behind it and finance these endeavours. There are also private companies such as Blue Origin run by by the Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, or SpaceX with their lunar ambitions, and that's Elon Musk. Many of the companies that came out of the Google Lunar X prize, the commercial offerings ranging around a million US dollar per kilogram payload to the surface of the moon.

Nadeem - So that gets us to the moon, but what's going to keep us there? Phillipe Schoonejans, Robotics and Future Projects Team Leader in the Human and Robotic Exploration Division at ESA gives us an insight.

Phillipe - There is a whole scale of things that we need to be on the Moon. Definitely shelter against radiation. It's one thing if we go for very very short, we have computed that it's sort of allowable, but if we want to stay for any length of stay, we have to look at the radiation. So we've also been looking at having a cylindrical element, like exactly what fits in a rocket, and to put it and to cover it completely with moon dust as protection against radiation. Definitely this is one area that we need, the shelter we need. We need water. Of course the Chandrayaan have already demonstrated that there definitely is water on the south pole of the Moon. So that's something that we have to be able to recover from the ice, but also that is something that we need for a bit longer stay. For one or two days you would never do that, you would just take the water. We need power. There's 14 days of day and then 14 days of night on the Moon. So we always are struggling with what to do with the 14 days of night. It can get like freezing cold and minus couple of hundred degrees. Then what do you do there? And then with no sunshine. So definitely we have to look at power. I think during the day it's okay, the solar rays would work, but during the night we need something else. We need a less clumsy EVA suit. If you look at the old movies from the past, from the Apollo missions, you see how incredibly clumsy they were. You could not pick up anything from the surface. You'd need some tool to do that. If they fell over they had immense trouble getting back up again, and NASA has now presented the new suits, I think a couple of weeks ago, a couple of months ago, which are way more flexible, but they are not yet at the end of their development.

Nadeem - And why are we even sending humans to the moon anyway? Can't we just send some robots?

Phillipe - My very clear view is that we should not speak of humans or robots. We should always speak of humans and robots. They have qualities that are definitely synergetic and it's clear that humans are, they're more flexible. A lot of things that they still do better, like image recognition or re-planning if your conditions change or something unexpected happens, and then they can take more rocks with them then you could do with the robot. On the other hand the robots, they are better for anything which is either boring or dangerous or repetitive, it's obviously still cheaper to put robots on the Moon. So we look at tele-operation, also to see whether we could put a robot on a small rover on the Moon's surface and tele-operate it from this lunar station. We've been doing a lot of experiments lately to develop the technology for it. So I think we have, we need to actually do both, but also if you look at our inspiration objective, then it is definitely still the case that one human on the Moon is way more inspirational than 10 robots.

Nadeem - So it seems as if not an awful lot has changed. We have rockets, we have space stations, and we have had landers, where do we struggle?

Torsten - We need proper sustainable rocket technology. Really a leap in the development for guidance and navigation that is from the technology side, the big issue. But I'm talking here about precise landing. I'm talking about avoiding craters or areas of eternal darkness. So that is something, I mean on the software development, I mean what led to the two mistakes earlier this year when Israel as well as India showed a hard landing on the Moon. Sounds much better than to crash it, but at the end it was a crash. So what happened were human mistakes and technical issues.

Nadeem - But despite difficulties and expensive failures, the race continues. So what's the next small step for mankind?

Torsten - We do have multiple approaches to return to the Moon. We have the NASA approach, the Artemis program, to put boots on the ground by 2024. At that stage, potentially, a one off mission, and then building an infrastructure later on. It is these ambitious goals within the next four, five years to get humans down on the Moon, again. On the other side, we have ESA, as you mentioned, with their programs, and I'm very happy that ESA just agreed to the highest budget ever, namely 40.4 billion Euros within the next five years.



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