The U.S. Congress House Committee on Science and Technology earlier this month held hearings to examine the summary report of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee. While it heard the challenges of future human space exploration and the alternatives to NASA's plans, one of the most important discussions centered on the conclusion that "Human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 budget guideline." If further manned exploration of the moon and beyond is significantly delayed or nixed altogether, what does that mean for the myriad technologies NASA already has in development? Here we take a look at some of the best NASA technology currently in development that might never get to space.
What About the Network?
In a white paper issued last fall, NASA said its sophisticated Deep Space Network will be modified to meet new performance and interoperability requirements for its planned moon shots. NASA stated: "A small constellation of Lunar Relay Satellites (LRS) will be placed into orbits with long-term stability that provide periodic coverage of the entire surface of the Moon as well as Low Lunar Orbit (LLO)." NASA said the Interplanetary Internet must be tough enough to withstand delays, disruptions and disconnections in space. Glitches can happen when a spacecraft moves behind a planet, or when solar storms and long communication delays occur.
Inflatable Lunar Habitat
One of several prototypes NASA reportedly has been working on to house astronauts on the moon, the system that has been most thoroughly tested looks something like an inflatable backyard bounce house for children, but it is far more sophisticated. It is insulated and heated, has power and is pressurized. It offers 384 square feet of living space and has, at its highest point, an 8-foot ceiling. During the test period, sensors will allow engineers to monitor the habitat's performance, NASA said.
ROxygen could produce two thirds of the oxygen needed to sustain a crew of four on the moon. The system is designed to use local resources to generate or extract oxygen. It could also be used to look for water or ice at the lunar poles, NASA says.
Robots the size of riding lawn mowers were part of a possible scenario that saw them building a lunar outpost before humans make their next trip to the moon. The robots, like the lunar excavator pictured here, would build berms around landing zones to trap the grit blown out when space vehicles land and take off.
Northrop Grumman said it successfully demonstrated the rocket engine known as the TR202 lunar descent engine that could be used on the spacecraft that lands on the moon. Northrop pintle injector technology was used on the original Apollo Lunar Module Descent Engine and the company is working with NASA to develop the technology as a candidate propulsion option for the NASA Altair lunar lander. According to NASA, Altair will be capable of landing four astronauts on the moon, providing life support and a base for weeklong initial surface exploration missions, and returning the crew to the Orion spacecraft that will bring them home to Earth.
Run Flat Tire
Flat tires can be a serious problem whether you are tooling down the interstate or crunching across a foreign planet. NASA and Goodyear developed an airless tire that lets large, long-range vehicles transport heavy loads across the surface of the moon.
The "Spring Tire" has inside 800 load-bearing springs and is designed to carry much heavier vehicles over much greater distances than the wire mesh tire previously used on the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). According to Goodyear, NASA requires tires that can handle vehicles weigh ten times what Apollo required.
That's a Firewall
NASA recently made one of the most important decisions for the future of its space flights -- the heat shield material that will protect future space explorers from the hellish heat of space travel. The space agency went with a technology it was quite familiar with, a fiberglass, silica, epoxy combination known as Avcoat. On the blistering return through Earth's atmosphere, the module will encounter temperatures as high as 5000 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating rates may be up to five times more extreme than rates for missions returning from the International Space Station, NASA said.
Mixing Balloons and Parachutes
This one has implications beyond the moon, but it also could be impacted by any space system cancellations. Researchers are developing a tool that will let engineers model and ultimately build advanced flight control systems that meld balloon and parachute technologies known as a ballute (BALLoon-parachUTE). Basically, a ballute is a large, inflatable device that takes advantage of atmospheric drag to decelerate and capture a spacecraft into orbit around a planet, according to NASA, which is funding Global Aerospace to build such a tool.
Lunar Electric Rover
This sophisticated moonbuggie is a pressurized vehicle about the size of a pickup truck -- with 12 wheels and can carry two astronauts for up to 14 days with sleeping and sanitary facilities, NASA claims. It is designed to require little or no maintenance, be able to travel thousands of miles climbing over rocks and up 40 degree slopes during its ten-year life exploring the harsh surface of the moon.
NASA's Ares V rocket is the agency's next generation heavy lifter. Ares V will serve as NASA's chief rocket that will carry everything form the lunar landing craft and materials for establishing a moon base, to food, fresh water and other staples needed to extend a human presence beyond Earth orbit. NASA says Ares V is a two-stage, vertically stacked launch vehicle. It can carry nearly 414,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit. When working together with the Ares I crew launch vehicle to launch payloads into Earth orbit, Ares V can send nearly 157,000 pounds to the moon.
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