WASHINGTON - American astronauts aboard the International Space Station told VOA on Wednesday that their excitement about recently announced plans to restore U.S. manned space missions to lunar orbit was eclipsed only by their skepticism about the logistical feasibility of completing the mission within six years.
“Going back to the moon is a bigger project than a lot of people think,” said Expedition 54 Flight Engineer Scott Tingle, who joined fellow NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei at the ISS on December 19.
Just last month, David Kring, senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the Universities Space Research Association in Houston, Texas, said the first unmanned launch in the program to get back to the moon could come in a little more than a year.
Kring said under the new lunar policy directive announced in December -- 45 years to the day after Apollo 17’s final moon landing on December 13, 1972 -- an unmanned mission to lunar orbit could happen by 2019.
“That will launch the Orion crew vehicle and will orbit the moon without astronauts,” Kring told VOA. “Then in 2023 the vehicle launches again, this time with astronauts who will orbit the moon and return. After that is successful, we can actually deploy the astronauts in space [in between the Earth and the moon].”
US, Russia to cooperate
Russia and the United States in September agreed to cooperate on a NASA-led program to build the first lunar space station as part of a longer-term mission to send humans to Mars. Both countries said a manned lunar spaceport could be orbiting the moon by 2024, when the International Space Station program is slated to end.
Speaking with VOA’s Russian service via an ISS live-feed broadcast by NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas, Tingle said successfully launching a manned vehicle into lower-moon orbit by 2023 might not be as simple as it sounds.
“Just because we’ve done it before doesn’t mean we’re that close to doing it now,” Tingle said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of engineering to do, a lot of planning to do, a lot of operations to do, and it’s going to be expensive. It’s going to take a lot of manpower, and it’s going to take a lot of thinking outside the box to make it as quickly and efficiently as we can.
“And we can’t do that alone,” he added. “We’re going to need to do it with international partners. So I do believe the international partnership will work; I believe it will be necessary to have a really good product to be able to achieve success with that mission goal.”
‘A wise step’
Despite the logistical challenges, Tingle’s U.S. colleague aboard the ISS, Mark Vande Hei, expressed optimism about the new lunar directive.
“I think it’s an extremely wise step,” Vande Hei said. “I think the moon provides us an excellent opportunity to rehearse, relatively close to the Earth, inhabiting a planetary-sized object with the ability, if things go wrong, to get people back relatively easily when compared with going to Mars.
“I think it’s going to be a huge step for humanity to have a lasting presence anyplace other than lower-Earth orbit,” he added. “I’m really looking forward to getting people on the moon, keeping them there for long periods of time, and then using that as a way to test out equipment to get ready to make sure we do it safely when we finally do get to Mars.”
Tingle was part of a trio of U.S., Japanese and Russian astronauts to join Vande Hei aboard the ISS on December 19.
Vande Hei, who has been aboard the ISS since September, floated aside Tingle and Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency throughout the interview.
New Year’s in space
The three astronauts, Tingle said, shared a New Year’s Eve dinner with the three Russian astronauts inhabiting another wing of the ISS.
“New Year’s Day, we took a little bit of time off, but more importantly we celebrated by having a nice, good dinner with our Russian colleagues down in the Russian segment,” Tingle said. “They were hospitable to us, and it was fun to sit and relax with them.”
Asked if they popped a bottle of champagne to ring in 2018, Tingle paused, passing the microphone to Vande Hei.
“No, we’re not allowed any alcohol,” said Vande Hei. “But our Russian crewmates went ahead and made us some grape juice with labels that made it look like we had champagne, so that was kind of fun to pretend.”
This story originated in VOA’s Russian service.
CORRECTION: David Kring is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas. Kring spoke with VOA via telephone and was not in attendance at December's lunar policy announcement at the White House.