Fly Me to L 1

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Sat Dec 6 13:47:33 PST 2003

Today seems to be space development day, first asteroid assays at a glance,
and now Buzz pitches L1.

Ad Astra, Et Cetera...



The New York Times

December 5, 2003

Fly Me to L 1


For the last 24 hours, news reports have been soaring into orbit that
President Bush and NASA are busy preparing their vision for the future of
America's space program - and that this vision may involve sending
astronauts back to the moon, and perhaps establishing some sort of
permanent base there. I applaud the instinct, but I think that a moon shot
alone seems more like reaching for past glory than striving for new

Instead, I think the next step in our space program should be to create a
floating launching pad for manned and unmanned missions to the Moon, Mars
and beyond. This is not a task for the unfinished International Space
Station, which is intended to be a floating laboratory rather than a bridge
to the heavens.

A much more practical destination than the moon or the space station is a
region of space called L 1, which is more than two-thirds of the way to the
moon and is where the gravity fields between the Earth and Moon are in
balance. Setting up a space port there would offer a highly stable platform
from which spacecraft could head toward near-Earth asteroids, the lunar
surface, the moons of Mars and wherever else mankind decides to travel.

Unlike the Moon and the International Space Station, which is in low-earth
orbit, L 1 is not the site of strong gravitational pulls, meaning that
spacecraft can leave there without using much energy. Thus L 1 would be the
most sensible position for a base that would function as a test area and
way-point for robotic flights as well as a support station and safe haven
for human exploration of the solar system.

It would also be relatively cheap, at least in terms of space travel. To
create a port at L 1 we can use the building methods that have already
proved successful for Skylab and the International Space Station - and we
can probably get it up and running for $10 billion to $15 billion,
significantly less than the International Space Station, which will likely
exceed $100 billion in the end. We can also save money by shifting away
from using the space shuttle as the transport vehicle and by developing a
new, more flexible launch vehicle and crew module to get people and cargo
up to the L 1 port.

Unfortunately, NASA's work on future vehicles - including the
much-ballyhooed "orbital space plane" - has stalled since the disaster with
the Shuttle Columbia. And even before then, the agency had been focusing on
the wrong sort of craft: one limited to transporting four astronauts at a
time with little or no cargo-carrying capability. Such a craft would
essentially be duplicating what the Russian Soyuz craft already does
adequately: bringing several astronauts up and back from a space station,
but little else. Moreover, NASA's "Supersized Soyuz" approach focuses only
on serving the International Space Station, rather than working toward a
more expansive vision.

There are better ways to invest our money in a new craft. One that would be
relatively quick and easy would be to keep what works in the current space
transportation system - the rocket boosters, external tank and trained
staff - and combine them with new elements. The tanks and boosters we now
use will soon be predictable and safe, as a part of NASA's post-Columbia
efforts. And if we stick with them, no new buildings or untested
ground-transportation methods would need to be built.

The big change would be to replace the aging shuttle orbiter with a new
crew module that would hold perhaps eight or more astronauts, and build a
so-called heavy-lift vehicle, capable of carrying cargo, that would attach
behind the module. This craft would be capable of variable crew and cargo
configurations. The crew module would need built-in escape and rescue
capabilities for the people aboard. The early version might have to make
parachute or parafoil landings in the ocean, although eventually it should
be modified to make runway landings.

Over time, more powerful engines and reusable rocket boosters could be
added to make possible sending even larger payloads and more passengers
into space at a lower cost per person and per pound. But the important
thing for the president to think about at this point is the long-term
future of space flight and for NASA to pursue all avenues, big and small,
to come up with the best plan.

Unfortunately, NASA has limited its $135 million orbital space plane
development contracts to a few giants: proposals by Boeing, Lockheed Martin
and Northrop Grumman. As a result, the space agency has shut the door on
the smaller, entrepreneurial companies that are responsible for some of the
most innovative current thinking on space technology. The farther reaching
scope of an L 1 effort calls for collaboration and competition - two
qualities that should be part of the cultural change NASA pledged to
undertake after loss of the Columbia.

In addition, NASA might even look at a new competitor as a possible
partner. The modernized, Soyuz-like manned capsule that China sent into
orbit in October is potentially safer and seems technologically more robust
than the Russian version. Working jointly with China would not only fill a
needed gap when America's agreement with Russia on using Soyuz runs out in
2006, but it would also make a potentially important political alliance.
China and America are on the verge of a new space race - with economic
competition expected from Japan, Europe and perhaps India - and it is
better to start off with cooperation than with confrontation.

The tragedy of the Columbia, combined with China's successful launch, have
put NASA at a crossroads. America's continued leadership in space depends
on decisions made now. President Bush should realize that the first step is
a bold new vision from the top.

Buzz Aldrin, an astronaut on the Apollo XI moon mission, is chairman of
Starcraft Boosters, which develops reusable booster rockets for spacecraft.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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