Every organisation needs an ideas person. A maverick thinker. Someone who not only thinks outside the box, but who considers replacing it altogether. For Lockheed Martin’s Human Space Flight Programme, that person is Josh Hopkins, the company’s Space Exploration Architect.
“My role is to think big picture thoughts about what kinds of exploration missions America and its international partners should be doing,” Hopkins explains. “I am focused on human exploration, but also how that overlaps with robotic spacecraft.”
Hopkins may have the world’s coolest job title but he has also got a problem. Or, as he would probably prefer to put it, an exciting challenge: Orion, America’s replacement for the Space Shuttle.
It’s not the delays and overruns besetting the $5 billion project that are exercising Hopkins. Nor is it the multiple redesigns to the spacecraft since President Bush gave the plan the go-ahead in 2004. The problem is that no-one quite knows what Orion is for.
Resembling a supersized Apollo capsule, Orion will carry a human crew of four on long duration missions into orbit and beyond. The programme has been one of the most drawn-out in the history of human spaceflight, but it is finally starting to come together. The first working prototype of the crew capsule has been built by Lockheed Martin and is about to enter an intensive period of testing, before an unmanned flight, currently slated for late next year.
When the Orion programme was first conceived a decade ago, the spacecraft was destined to take astronauts back to the Moon. Today, Nasa’s goals are so shifting and ill-defined that it could end up heading for the Moon or a (yet-to-be-identified) asteroid. Orion could be sent into deep space or simply be used to shuttle supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). This is a spacecraft in search of a mission.
“To some extent that’s true,” admits Hopkins, “and it has some obvious disadvantages, but it also has some advantages in that we can design the spacecraft to be flexible and have lots of different options for what we can do.”
As well as Nasa’s current plans for a mission to an asteroid, these options include some highly innovative ideas. “We’re looking at missions that could orbit the Moon and have astronauts control rovers on the lunar far side, that nobody’s ever explored before,” says Hopkins.
Combining the benefits of human exploration with the convenience, safety and economy of robotics is a compelling idea. It would be considerably easier, cheaper and safer than landing humans on the lunar surface. Parked in their Orion capsule in lunar orbit, astronauts would be able to operate the rovers like remote control cars, deciding where they should go in real-time. Nasa astronaut Chris Cassidy recently tested the theory, successfully controlling a rover in a simulated moonscape on Earth from the ISS.
“It’s different from how we traditionally control a rover, where you’ve got maybe a hundred people on Earth taking a long time to decide what to do” says Hopkins. “In this scenario we have one or two astronauts making more real-time decisions.”
However, as the communications time delay between the Earth and the Moon is only around two seconds (there and back), you could just as easily control a rover from Earth. In fact the Soviet Union operated a couple of its lunar rovers this way more than 40 years ago. Where this technology really starts to make sense is for destinations much further away.