Chair Force Engineer

Friday, December 14, 2007

Oh my God! Altair killed Beau Bridges!

NASA has officially announced that its Lunar Surface Access Module will be named "Altair," an Arabic word for "the flying one."

It should be noted that during early 2006, the name "Artemis" was rumored for the LSAM, while "Altair" was rumored for the Crew Exploration Vehicle. As it played out, the CEV became "Orion," while the "Artemis" name was bid good riddance. My personal preference was that the LSAM would be called "Orion Lunar Module," as Apollo's lander was the "Apollo Lunar Module."

Readers of James Michener's delightful Space will recall that "Altair" was the name of the Apollo command module which brought John Pope back home from the darkness and cold of deep space. As long as the "Altair" lander doesn't kill Beau Bridges, I really don't care what the name is.

A more substantive question than the name is the design of the lander. Right now, NASA does not have a baseline design for Altair. The 47 metric ton mass target appears to be difficult, if not impossible, to reach with any design. It's worth noting that the design of Apollo's lander changed greatly between contract award in November 1962, and first flight in January 1968. But I think the trade space is worth a re-examination.

"Crasher" stages have seen a lot of attention from NASA as of late, but I do not think they set a wise precedent for sustained lunar exploration. If reusable landers ferry astronauts between the lunar surface and Lagrange points, they shouldn't be dropping the bulk of their engines and tankage on every mission.

Previous NASA studies for Altair have depicted a large habitat that would be left on the moon, plus a spartan ascent cabin that would return astronauts to lunar orbit. It might be wise to take this a step further, with a separate habitat lander and crew lander. Robert Zubrin proposed a similar architecture in The Case for Mars, launching a fully-fueled crew lander and a long-duration habitat lander on two launches of a heavy-lift rocket. Such an architecture could be adapted for a future Mars mission.

Since the ESAS report was rolled out in Summer 2005, the lander has been the least-defined element of the plan. Having a name for the lander is nice, but the hard work of defining and designing the lander is barely getting started. We can only hope that the effort will receive the funding needed to make it real.