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Unmanned Landing Option for the Lunar Habitat

In deciding whether or not to have the habitat manned for descent, we have to study the trade-offs. The lack of human interest is an obvious loss, both because the first flight wouldn't be nearly as interesting and because if they crew knows they have a fully operational lunar base waiting, even the first manned landing wouldn't be so interesting.

There are also technical trade-offs. A fully automated spacecraft will weigh a lot more, and cost many times as much, as a manned spacecraft providing the same functions. It's a simple thing for a human being to flip a switch or turn a valve; automating those functions is incredibly expensive -- a $5.00 switch can suddenly cost $5 million.

Although the guys at JPL preach a sermon that unmanned spacecraft are sooo much cheaper; but this just isn't so. (Example: Voyager cost as much as a Space Shuttle Orbiter, and didn't have even 1% of the functional capability.) You sacrifice a lot of capability when you take the people out of the picture.

Not to dismiss the idea summarily: A couple of telerobots that can handle those switches and knobs might be sufficient to automate the lunar habitat until the real crew can get there. Those robots would have great value while the crew is there, and could continue to keep the base functioning while nobody's around. This is worth some serious analysis. Throughout this program we'll use robots to extend the reach of humans, both inside and outside the habitat.

Piloting a teleoperated spacecraft to a precise point on the lunar surface would be sporting at best. (Transport lag could be as much as 10 minutes round trip. It's not the speed of light but rather the time spent routing and retransmitting the data that slows down the communcation loop. For this landing, tenths of a second count.) However, we might recover from that problem by having the requirement for the unmanned elements be less precise -- maybe it doesn't have to be level; maybe we don't care about its orientation with respect to the sun; maybe it would even be acceptable if the thing fell over when it landed.

We should also consider taking a human crew on the first flight with the abolute minimum habitat, and then landing the big stuff with an instrument landing system that the first crew set up. That gets us the best of both alternatives -- the drama of people on the first flight, and less costly transportation for the heavy freight.

Earth Orbit to Lunar Surface

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