How long to plan a trip to the Moon?

Let’s say that for some reason we had to go to the Moon, and quickly (any reason you like, but let’s assume it is extremely important and extremely urgent). What’s the soonest we (or any other country or even private company) could land someone on the lunar surface? I assume that there aren’t rockets just laying around, so something would have to be constructed, plus all the other planning, training, calculations, etc.

I figure the past Moon missions were literally years in the planning, but if it were some sort of emergency, how fast could itself be done? A year? A month? A long weekend? Does the Moon need to be at a certain point in its orbit, meaning that whatever terrestrial limitations exist we might still need to wait for the right window of opportunity?

I also figure that in the past limiting costs was at least somewhat of a priority. Let’s assume for this scenario that money is no object (or that failure of the mission is EXTREMELY costly in money and/or lives).

To organize a successful moon trip would take years of planning and execution. Could the time frame be compressed somewhat? Sure. But even throwing an unlimited amount of money can’t compress the time to weeks or months. Even with all we know about landing someone on the moon you would essentially have to start from scratch, and all the testing that would be required would take a certain amount of time. If you decided to eschew testing and roll the dice you still have to design and build the spacecraft… My uneducated guess would be at least 3-5 years as a best case scenario.

We can do it quickly.
We can do it cheaply.
We can do it reliably.

Pick two out of three.

I think I already made it clear that money was no object, and that speed and mission success were paramount in my hypothetical scenario.

Why do you assume we’d have to start from scratch? Build…sure, but we’ve already got a successful design.
I appreciate the reply, but 3-5 years sounds excessive. My WAG would be 3-6 MONTHS. I’d be curious to see hard facts/cites that either confirm or deny that possibility.

3-6 months? Maybe contracts could be tentatively written up in that time. You couldn’t have a flight crew or a mission control crew trained up in that amount of time. First the trainers and simulator operators would have to get trained before they could begin training a flight crew or 3 mission control teams (they worked 3 shifts, so you need 3 people to fill each position). And they’d never build it from the old blueprints/drawings. Some of those parts are no longer available. Do you seriously think they’re going to rebuild 50 year old computers? Miss out on a chance to save weight by replacing as much of the copper wire with fibre optic cable as they can? No LED indicators or flat screen monitors? Make 18 space suits (they made 3 for each crew member (both prime and backup crews))?

You want some cites? You should read these:
A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft
A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions
A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations

Those are official NASA histories. You might want to consider what was really involved.

Golden Spike is hoping to do it in the next six years.

Even if all the hardware was ready, and the entire Apollo infrastructure was up and running, it would have taken more than 3 months to add another mission on the end of the Apollo programme. Basically if, in 1972, you needed to get to the moon real fast, it would have taken at least 3 months. And that would have been using the hardware from the cancelled Apollo 18 and 19 missions that were already built.

The insane level of difficulty seems to have slipped out of people’s understanding in the years since Apollo. This was a mission on the absolute edge of what could be achieved, with the concerted application of tens of thousands of people, over nearly a decade.

The simple reality is that we have not advanced all that greatly since then. Basic rocket engineering has not changed much. Much like jet airliners. The basic principles were worked out in the 50s, and since then it has only been incremental improvements.

The idea we could restart production of the Saturn V comes around every now and again. And the answer is basically no. A Ranger Jeff says, first you have to create the tooling, and then you try to build a rocket. And then you have to test it to see if you built it right. The time needed to construct a Saturn V, even with the entire production system up and running was years. Look at a passenger aircraft, the assembly time - not the production of the parts - just the assembly, of a large jetliner - 747 - 5 months, A380 - 9 months. And this is a 24x7 production line.a There are limits to how many people you can throw at the problem at the same time as well. There are lots of highly complex systems that get installed in tiny spaces. You simply physically can’t get more human beings working on the job.

A Saturn V is significantly more complex, and much higher stressed, and has zero room for failure. About five years to build one.

Use existing old Apollo hardware? No chance. It is approaching 50 years old. There is nothing that could be expected to work properly. The Saturns have spent decades outside. The LEMs have been on public display. Nothing has been kept in controlled conditions. Even it they had, none of the seals, electronics, even wiring would be useful. It would all have to be stripped out and rebuilt. Essentially disassemble and reassemble the entire craft. Call it a year. Even if you had one.

Since we don’t have any useful hardware directly useable, what do we have? We don’t have a crew module that could go to the moon. Nobody does. We have capsules that can buzz about in LEO, but not manage the week plus trip to the moon and back, and certainly not survive re-entry at trans lunar speeds. Fastest thing to do would be to use Orion. Things could be compressed. Orion isn’t exacty being well funded. Maybe get it going in five years and not 10. Complicating things is that the service module isn’t designed and will be built by the Europeans.

We don’t have a man rated launch vehicle that could loft it. There are suggestions to man rate the Delta 4. A few Delta 4 Heavy launches might get enough stuff launched. At least a year to man rate. And you would want a few test flights with the manned capsule before trying for the moon.

And you don’t have lander. Maybe the fastest thing here would be to try to build something based on the old LEM. But that thing was on the absolute ragged edge of things. A lot of it had to be hand made, because machine fabrication wasn’t able to machine such delicate parts. A huge amount of its fabrication was human, and the skills took a long time to build up. And they are gone now. Maybe three years, probably longer.

In all, five years would be my guess too.

Thanks for the well researched and supported response. I agree that for the U.S. the task would likely take multiple years.

But I would like to clarify my OP… I am envisioning something like what was portrayed in the movie “Armageddon” (except they had to land on an asteroid, not the moon). The fate of literally the whole world depends on success, therefore it would stand to reason that the whole world would cooperate. Aren’t there countries right now (China?) with moon programs at some advanced state that could be accelerated/co-opted/leased?

I appreciate the amount of work, planning, and engineering that went into the Apollo program. But computers are much better (faster) now, and there is certainly SOME things that don’t have to be redone/remade. So maybe 3-6 months is too ambitious, but 5 years seems like a long time.

I heard rumored that we have lost the blueprints/plans for some of the [supposed] required tech to build the assorted rockets and tech. That being said, if we wanted to redo everything, and could throw almost limitless people at the problem, perhaps 6 months for the computer research and design, 6 months for prototyping, 6 months for building and perhaps waiting for the optimum planet/moon alignment for the trip. And that would be chopping the whole got to research it to triple redundency and test it till the cows come home. We know pretty much everything we need to for the old tech of the 50s and 60s, we know the research and tech for the shuttles, and we can skip the whole alien microbes/null G will blow up/implode the astronaut phase of testing. We were shipping people and goods up to orbit for better than a decade using the older tech.

Let’s send things up one piece at a time and build things in orbit.

The manned part will be the Soyuz capsule docked at at the ISS.
We send up a lunar descent module and a lunar ascent module, assuming we also want them to come back.
To get from low Earth orbit to a lunar orbit and back we use a relatively small rocket to get far enough away from Earth so we can use a solar sail.

There was a persistent rumour that the Apollo programme designs had been lost/destroyed. Not true. They all exist on microfilm. What has been lost is a lot of the skills in the heads of the people that did the fabrication and assembly. When you are building something as bleeding edge as a spacecraft, there is no such thing as a simple blueprint you send down to the machine shop have a part turned or machined up. Precise alloys, heat treatments, end to end provenance of a part, from billet to installation. The joke in aviation was that a plane wasn’t ready to fly until the weight of documentation exceeded the weight of the craft.

An example of how hard even simple things are. The first Apollo command modules were not fit to fly. The tragdey of Apollo 1, was in probably in part due to issues in assembly. After the fire they disassembled the next completed capsule, and discovered that there were hundreds of errors or other problems with it. One problem was many skinned wires. Simply due to the difficulty in working in such a cramped space constructing a very complex system. Fast forward a few decades and remember how Airbus lost a year in shipping the A380 due to issues with wiring. Airbus were haemorrhaging billions of dollars in lost revenue, lost customers, and potential legal action over the delay. But it still took a year to fix. A year to sort out how to wire it properly after the design was already supposedly sorted, and they had been flying the first one built. Apollo 1 happened because they were moving too fast. In a large complex task things never go to plan. It just never happens. We can’t know enough to predict what will go wrong. NASA has lost three crews, each time due to exactly that sort of complacency.

There are some tasks that simply won’t go faster than a certain speed. As the saying goes, nine women cannot make a baby in one month. As Fred Brooks pointed out a long time ago, there is a point where adding people to the task actually slows down its completion. The managing of very large projects is a different world. The rules are very different.

I notice that Apollo 13 is always in the back of people’s minds when they talk about heroic “can do” feats. One of the lessons of Apollo 13 was not to do anything in a hurry. One of the less appreciated aspects of the successful recovery of the mission was that they didn’t get the astronauts back as soon as possible. In fact they delayed their return a full day. Mission control needed that time to plan and rehearse the needed techniques to get the CM up and running for re-entry. Had they brought he mission home as fast as they could, they would have had more battery, less CO[sub]2[/sub] and so little time that they would probably have messed up and lost the mission.

Lofting stuff isn’t the problem. We have a lot of capacity. We simply don’t have anything to send. Can’t use a Soyuz. Simply don’t have the ability to run a mission long enough, and it won’t survive re-entry. Re-entry from the moon is much faster than from low earth orbit. It requires a whole different level of heat shield. There is nothing around, even on a drawing board that has the mission duration capacity to use a solar sail. Again, we have lots of rockets in various forms. They aren’t the problem, not compared to the rest.

I like the idea of “off the shelf” technologies (including computers) we already have to put the parts in orbit then assemble them. I know we (and the Russians) have several medium-to-heavy lift rockets already in service, so use some for the command module, some for fuel tanks, etc. and have a joint erector-set party at the ISS. The math is already done, we know it IS possible to land and return, that part is already in the books (literally), so from there it’s just a logistics problem. I also think a big consideration is, is it a one-way trip? I assume that if it’s a rush/emergency situation as implied in the OP - if we HAD TO - my WAG is that it could be done in a year, maybe?

As an aside - I HATE it when people say “If we can put a man on the moon, then why can’t we (blank)?” I’ve taken up the habit in recent years of reminding them that we CAN’T land a man on the moon anymore.

You already mentioned the stuff that don’t have to be remade - the computers. Otherwise, the physical rocket stuff DOES have to be remade, and those are the biggest, most time-consuming bits. Look at the B-52 bomber. We don’t make those anymore. Despite being much simpler than a moon rocket, it would take years to make another one. Just setting up the physical plant would be the work of more than a year.

So 5 years actually sounds kind of short to me, but we are talking about impending disaster, so maybe shortcuts can be made to get it to that point.

Using the ISS as a staging area? Still way more than a year. It’s basic physics. The ISS is in a fairly low, atmosphere hugging orbit (~250 miles) at a fairly high inclination (~50%). This is one of those things that people don’t seem to understand about orbits and the ISS. If we use a basketball to represent the earth, the ISS is about a quarter inch off the surface.

The fuel requirements simply aren’t cut by all that much by staging from the ISS. Also simply ferrying the necessary fuel for a moon mission would take more than a year. You might save some fuel for the moon mission itself but the logistics of getting it all up to the ISS make it simpler, cheaper, and faster to launch a moon mission from the earth.

This pretty much sums it up.

Living in Houston, I head out to the JSC occasionally where there’s plenty of history on display. One of the things you see is that there’s a lot of operational experience necessary. On their Saturn V, they show how they had to figure out even low level things like how to path electrical wires to make the rocket work properly. That’s not something you can shortcut. It’s something basic that comes up in the design and implementation process. You can’t just copy it, especially if you replace anything with newer technology.

Let’s assume that the situation is dire enough that it does warrant a “suicide” mission (that is, we need to land at least one man on the surface, but his return is not required for the mission to succeed… Let’s say he has a task equivalent to cutting the red wire of a huge bomb that was left there by extra-terrestrial terrorists). Does that change things significantly?

Or can we send a rover to do the task? Is that easier or harder?

I reckon it could be done inside a month. China, Russia, America, and maybe ESA all have the ability to loft probes to the moon. It just depends which lifter is first available and how much risk you’re prepared to take.

If you were willing to accept a near-suicidal risk of crew loss, you could probably slap together a one-man minimum weight lunar lander in 12-18 months, stick it on one of the larger available launchers, and cross your fingers. Anything more ambitious would require either a lot of time or an infinitesimal chance of success.

No way.
It’s not about being capable of conceiving a rocket, it’s about the years required to design, build, and test the tooling, the test systems, the rocket and the support systems.
Even during the Apollo program if you missed your launch window (of a few days) you had to wait a month for the orbits to line up again. That’s with a built and tested rocket already on the pad with a trained crew and mission control - none of which exist today.

Delivering a living human being significantly increases the engineering challenge.

The weight alone would be massively greater than for a robotic probe because of life support systems, much less the additional restrictions on duration and magnitude of acceleration.

Much easier. We can design robots to withstand more of a beating than humans, and that helps.

Depending on the probe itself, the total weight may also be lower than a human crew plus life support (air, food, etc) and things could be packed tighter.

China just sent one up that’s still working. If we really needed to, we could slap the rocket together much faster than a manned lunar rocket. The hard part in this case may actually be building a robot to take care of whatever we had in mind. Making stuff work on the moon is a bit of a challenge, but much simpler than sending people up there.