New moon race

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New moon race
New moon race

A new lunar race is unfolding on the planet. The Russian space industry is trying to signify participation in it by patenting a multi-launch flight to an Earth satellite. Obviously, this is just a surrogate for super-heavy missiles, which we are not yet building. The United States, on the other hand, is actively developing two superheavy vehicles at once - but not everything is smooth there either. Their lunar program may be hit hard in the coming year. Skeptics believe that the efforts of everyone involved in the race are useless. They say that manned flights to other celestial bodies are not needed, because they are expensive. Automatic machines will be able to do everything much cheaper. In fact, the lunar program, as we will show below, is no more expensive than flights to the ISS. And the automata will not give us anything like the results of a manned lunar expedition. Let's try to figure out why.

Earth from the moon

Headlines like "RSC Energia found the possibility of flying to the moon without a super-heavy rocket", which appeared in the press last week, indicate that Russian rocket developers are looking for a way out of a rather difficult situation: flights to the Earth's satellite in other countries may begin as early as 2020s, but Russia has very little chance of completing the creation of the super-heavy rocket needed for this in the same years.

The reasons for the smallness of these chances are commonplace. First of all, such a development requires time and competent chief designers, and we, in comparison with our competitors, seem to have a deficit of both.

Foreign developers began to actually work on super-heavy missiles years ago, while Russia does not yet have it even on paper, in the form of a completed draft design of at least an average level of elaboration. This means that they have a big head start in terms of time. We also have some problems with the chief designers.

One illustration: the Angara rocket. Although Russia is the birthplace of the use of supercooled rocket fuel and oxidizer (intercontinental ballistic missile R-9A Korolev and Mishina, 1960s), it is not used in Angara.

By cooling the propellant components, one can noticeably increase their density and, due to this, fill the same rocket with several percent more fuel and oxidizer - only slightly raising the mass of its structure (it will need reinforcements). It is clear that more fuel in the same rocket means more payload and cheaper launching into space.

Pavel Pushkin, a former employee of Roskosmos, and today the head of the private space company Kosmokurs, in response to our question about why there is no supercooled fuel on the Angara, although Korolev still had it, said simply:

“Yes, there is boiling oxygen in the Hangar. Hypothermia was not used. And why - the devil only knows. In general, we do not like to strain too much … Mishin was generally a strong designer."

This particular example shows that the situation with the chief designers of rocket technology is very difficult in our country. It is no secret that the Falcon 9 uses deep hypothermia, and our new rockets not only do not do this, but also do not plan. Under the current staffing situation, Roscosmos cannot win the competition between chief designers.

What is wrong with the multi-launch flight to the moon

Therefore, the new concept of RSC Energia "flight to the Moon without superheavy", it would seem, can only be welcomed. However, one problem prevents this.It will not be so easy to find a leader without a damaged amygdala - his dysfunction leads to pathological fearlessness - who would dare to implement it.

Let's take a closer look at the diagram, and it will become clear to us why. Within its framework, one "Angara-A5V" delivers a refueling station to the Moon, which, on rocket engines, sits on an earth satellite and there waits for a manned lander with people to land. Before - and outside this scheme - a spacecraft is docked to an ISS-type orbital station for a flight to Selena.

Then the cosmonauts are brought to the orbital station on Soyuz-2.1a, and they board the ship. Further to the station on a pair of missiles "Angara-A5V" deliver the tanker ship and the upper stage. Docking at the ISS these three parts, the astronauts on them will go to the lunar orbit. From there they land on an earth satellite, do something there, refuel and fly away. Success?

If you don't ask any questions, then yes. For example: why not use one type of rockets? The answer is simple: Angara-A5V does not fly and has never flown. Considering the moderate frequency of Roskosmos rocket launches, it will not have time to collect acceptable statistics of successful launches by the time of the flight to the Moon in the 2020s. That is why the cosmonauts will be put on the Soyuz - with a huge half-century statistics of successful launches.

That is, even people who put forward a multi-launch scheme realize that some of the missiles in the scheme may not give a successful flight. And it will be good if the first Angara-A5B, which carries the lunar refueling station, falls. Then the project will simply be postponed until the next rocket launch with a refueling station.

And if the third "Angara-A5V" collapses, and then the ship "to the Moon" will remain without an upper stage - having already been assembled in near-earth orbit and docked to the ISS? Or the second, and the refueling ship won't arrive? Roscosmos will have them all in duplicate, which will significantly raise the cost of the project? Or will he evacuate the astronauts from the already assembled spacecraft and pretend that this is not an image disaster?

But let's leave the image aside. What will happen if, at the moment of separation of the module with people (for landing on the moon), the tanks of the refueling station waiting there suddenly begin to lose fuel? Or, for example, at the very attempt to refuel, there will be a large leak?

Then there will be nothing to refuel the module with the crew for takeoff - and the astronauts on Selene will be doomed. What will the supporters of the multi-start scheme be able to say in their defense then? We were so reluctant to do super-heavy that we killed people? It will be quite difficult to make positive PR out of this message.

As we can see, the multi-start scheme means that the chances of failure increase markedly. And any failure in such a high-profile project is a severe blow to reputation.


In general, all this is not news for a long time. The first multi-launch flight to the Moon was proposed by Wernher von Braun in 1958 (he planned up to 15 launches). Those schemes included refueling the spacecraft to the Moon in Earth's orbit, and even the lunar lander before taking off from the satellite - that is, there is nothing fundamentally new in the plans of RSC Energia in comparison with the ideas of a group of German engineers of the late 50s.


However, all these attempts to overcome the weaknesses of the missiles then in the United States ended differently: von Braun's group was still able to design and bring to airworthiness the largest flying rocket in human history in less than a decade. From this, exotic ideas about launching multiple carriers for one lunar refueling have lost all meaning.

The same path awaits Russia.

There seems to be nothing to fly to the moon … but not to fly to it is even more senseless

It should be admitted that there is nothing commercially important on the Moon today. The endlessly repeated theses about the presence of helium-3 there do not count: the fusion of nuclei on its basis is much more complicated than on the one that can be used today in ITER, besides, even among the "complex" thermonuclear fuels, it is not optimal.


The thesis "The moon can become a launching pad for the exploration of the solar system" is not too convincing yet. Yes, Selene has at least 100 billion tons of water and many other light elements. But it is not entirely clear why all this should be lifted from the Moon, if flights to Mars are technically available from Earth - and they should be cheaper due to the absence of the need for investments in the lunar infrastructure.

The only mode of transport to Mars "and further" available at least someone in the plans is Starship, flying on methane. But there is no methane on the Moon, that is, it is clearly not suitable here as a "launch pad".

The idea of ​​organizing observatories there is also quite dubious. Any landing on an Earth satellite will require a mass of fuel, and most importantly - the creation of a complex and expensive lander. But a space observatory in an orbit similar to the lunar will not require such expenses.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in flying there - and a big one: the exploration of the Moon, oddly enough, does not cost very much, but it can bring a lot of new things to science. And as the history of mankind shows, any achievement in the field of fundamental science - even the most, at first glance, abstract such as Darwinism, quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity - sooner or later turns into a great practical return.

In the 1860s, hardly anyone understood what the practical sense of Darwinism could be, but in the last half century, its results have literally fed humanity to an unprecedented level. In the 1910s, no one expected the practical benefits of Einstein's discoveries - but today anyone using GPS uses them. Studying the moon will definitely seriously advance science, which means it will undoubtedly pay for itself.

And, oddly enough, it is not that expensive at all. There is a widespread point of view that flights to a terrestrial satellite in the United States were stopped because the expenses on them were too great. They say, so what if we don't fly to the moon, but we saved.

Alas, this misconception is based on ignorance of specific numbers. 90% of all Apollo expenses were spent on one-off R&D expenditures, and the launches themselves were relatively inexpensive.

According to NASA documents, the entire flight to the Moon, including the cost of a rocket, ship, spacesuits and lunar vehicles, cost no more than 2.3 billion modern dollars. This means that each flight to an earth satellite was cheaper than the annual spending on manned space that the United States had in the era of shuttles.

That is, even flying to Selena every year, the United States would spend less money on space than it did in real history. If the Americans flew to the Moon today for the same $ 2.3 billion, this would amount to only one-ninth of their space budget (a couple of tens of billions of dollars a year).

To understand how modest the costs were for all new flights to the Moon without the Apollo collapsing, it is enough to recall: Washington spent 7, 7 billion modern dollars annually on shuttle flights to low-earth orbit. This is more than two Apollo flights to the Moon per year. As a result, more was spent on the shuttle program than on the lunar one.

Another comparison: NASA now spends 3-4 billion dollars a year to maintain its activities on the ISS. With the same funds, it was possible to launch one expedition to the moon every eight months. And the total expenditures on the ISS today are higher than they were on the lunar program. Let's ask ourselves a rhetorical question: which is more scientifically significant, the ISS or the study of the Moon?

The general conclusion is obvious: although no special "practical" goal in the study of the moon is currently visible, it is still possible and necessary to study it. Simply because it costs the same to study spots on the inner walls of the ISS per year - but the scientific return from this is clearly less.


It is quite obvious that mankind cannot refuse manned space, it is too difficult to return to them later (recall the epic of NASA with manned flights in the 2010s). This means that this program should make the greatest possible sense - and it will be extremely difficult to find it outside the lunar flights.

Can't automata do the same there as a human, but for much less money?

Thus, abandoning Apollo looks like an inexplicable stupidity. Flights to the Moon would not have cost Washington more than flights to Earth orbit and the ISS. Why did the United States agree to this? The answer is simple: like many of our contemporaries, the then American president was under the false impression that flights to the moon did not make sense.

To understand this idea of ​​his, it is worth remembering history. The States never wanted to fly to Selene themselves: all of von Braun's calls to start developing "lunar" rockets were continuously rejected. Kennedy replied “no” to another such demand on March 20, 1961. But on April 12, 1961, Gagarin flew into space, and Washington faced a real PR disaster. The only way out of it was to overtake the USSR on the way to an even more ambitious goal - the Moon.

From the point of view of the American establishment, this goal was achieved: Moscow never sent its people to Selena. This means that the States no longer needed to spend money on PR. Mastering the moon for scientific purposes? Alas, American presidents often lack a good science education, which makes it difficult for them to fully understand the importance of this occupation.

This gives them a false feeling: people on the moon are just a whim of scientists, and in order to satisfy them at a cheaper price, you just need to replace people with automatic machines. Following the politicians, many have adopted similar views, so it is necessary to dwell in detail on why this is impossible.

The myth that robots on Earth and automata in space can have a result of activity comparable to a person in approximately equal proportions is generated by two sources:

1) fiction (fantastic) literature and cinema, describing the capabilities of robots in an imaginary future;

2) the fact that most of us do not closely follow the real activity of automata on other planets and are guided only by the vigorous reports of the scientific pop, in which our rovers hypersuccessfully ply the expanses of other planets.

In real life, no independent automata have ever traveled on the surface of the Moon or Mars. There were, are and in the foreseeable future there will be only and exclusively remotely controlled vehicles with very limited capabilities. They can ride on non-rugged terrain, but they often get stuck in it, which is why they die.


If such machines are mobile, then their "drill" can go deep into the ground for a few centimeters. If they are stationary, the drill will be unable to survey anything but a random landing point directly below it.

Finally, all these machines do not work in difficult terrain and in difficult conditions. And the peculiarities of both Mars and the Moon lie precisely in the fact that only in hard-to-reach places is what is most interesting for scientists - from water to traces of possible life.


An expedition with human biologists could well study the places where life on Mars could be in a matter of months. Automata have been trying to do this for decades - and, unfortunately, their real capabilities so far make the solution of this problem a utopia.

Exactly the same applies to the study of lunar caves (lava tubes) and circumpolar craters - key objects of scientific interest on the Earth's satellite. The machines, in principle, will not get there. (For more details, read the article "Automata in Space: No Prospects for Replacing Man" in the January issue of our magazine).

Let's remember history: expeditions of people on the Moon have already brought noticeable scientific results. And without their renewal, the speed of studying the satellite cannot noticeably increase, because science already presents simple places there, and complex ones are not for automata. As a result, the resumption of flights there is inevitable.

Political difficulties and the lifebuoy of the lunar program

Unfortunately, despite all this, the United States, the main - if not the "only" player capable of landing there in the 2020s, may soon experience a series of problems that undermine their capabilities in space. According to polls, Trump loses to Biden. When the president changes in the States, the direction of the space program also changes. Nixon decided to abandon the Apollo, Obama - from Bush's Artemis, and Donald Trump again reoriented the space program to the moon.

This rule is not just the personal arbitrariness of the presidents. When a party wins elections in the States, its congressmen want to redistribute the pie of budgetary funding for space in favor of “their” companies - from the states they represent. Of course, this cannot be done without a serious revision of the entire program.

All this means that there are significant chances that the United States will refuse to land on the moon. In favor, for example, of a near-lunar station, with scientific exhaust as from the ISS, but at a much higher price. Or in favor of a flight to Mars "sometime later."

Nevertheless, flights to the moon have one serious supporter who preserves the chances of the United States landing there, even if Trump is removed from power, and the American lunar program is once again transferred to an eternally bright future. This is Elon Musk. By itself, he does not need Selena: there is no point in colonizing her. But to fly to Mars, you first need to raise a lot of money, and there is no better advertising platform for getting it than the lunar program using Starship.

With him, the thesis "flights to the moon can cost no more and so realized flights to near-earth orbit" takes on a completely new sound. A typical Starship flight should cost a few millions of dollars - due to its reusability at the level of at least one hundred flights, as well as the choice of not the most expensive materials and methane fuel.


A typical flight to the moon with such a carrier will cost at least an order of magnitude less than with the Apollo. Consequently, we will talk not only about periodic studies of the satellite, but also about the possibility of creating a permanent scientific base on it. By the way, there is nothing too complicated in this: the level of radiation there, even on the surface, is half that of the hypothetical circumlunar base, and under the cover of the ground, it is lower than that of the ISS.

The Mask will still have to finish the Starship, and immediately upon reaching its airworthiness, the ship - entirely, without the need for a special landing module - is able to land on the moon and thereby ensure the return of a person there.

After that, NASA - whether the organization wants it or not - will not be able to pretend that Starship does not exist. Due to its low cost in comparison with the SLS / Orion program, the agency will have to switch to Musk carriers and begin to study Selena with manned expeditions.

History seems to value irony. The return of people to the moon is highly likely to provide a person who does not need the moon itself. However, it is not this that is important, but the fact that as a result, the speed and effectiveness of studying the earth's satellite will noticeably increase - which, undoubtedly, will enrich earthly science.

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