The flight computer onboard the Lunar Excursion Module, which landed on the Moon during the Apollo program, had a whopping 4 kilobytes of RAM and a 74-kilobyte “hard drive.” In places, the craft's outer skin was as thin as two sheets of aluminum foil.
It worked well enough for Apollo. Back then, astronauts needed to stay on the Moon for only a few days at a time. But when NASA once again sends people to the Moon starting around 2020, the plan will be much more ambitious—and the hardware is going to need a major upgrade.
“Doing all the things we want to do using systems from Apollo would be very risky and perhaps not even possible,” says Frank Peri, director of NASA's Exploration Technology Development Program.
So the program is designing new, more capable hardware and software to meet the demands of NASA's plan to return humans to the moon. Instead of staying for just a few days, astronauts will be living on the Moon's surface for months on end. Protecting astronauts from harsh radiation at the Moon's surface for such a long time will require much better radiation shielding than just a few layers of foil. And rather than relying on food and water brought from Earth and jettisoning urine and other wastes, new life support systems will be needed that can recycle as much water as possible, scrub carbon dioxide from the air without depending on disposable filters, and perhaps grow a steady supply of food—far more than Apollo life-support systems could handle.
Next-generation lunar explorers will perform a much wider variety of scientific research, so they'll need vehicles that can carry them farther across the lunar surface. ETDP is building a new lunar rover that outclasses the Apollo-era moon buggy by carrying two astronauts in a pressurized cabin. “This vehicle is like our SUV for the Moon,” Peri says.
The Exploration Technology Development Program is also designing robots to help astronauts maintain their lunar outpost and perform science reconnaissance. Making the robots smart enough to take simple verbal orders from the astronauts and carry out their tasks semi-autonomously requires vastly more powerful computer brains than those on Apollo; four kilobytes of RAM just won't cut it.
The list goes on: New rockets to carry a larger lunar lander, spacesuits that can cope with abrasive moon dust, techniques for converting lunar soil into building materials or breathable oxygen. NASA's ambitions for the Moon have been upgraded. By tapping into 21st century technology, this program will ensure that astronauts have the tools they need to turn those ambitions into reality.
Learn more about the Exploration Technology Development Program at www.nasa.gov/directorates/esmd/aboutesmd/acd/ technology_ dev.html. Kids can build their own Moon habitat at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/exploration/habitat.
This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.