Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Fly Me to the Moon

Fly Me to the Moon: An Insider's Guide to the New Science of Space Travel

Edward Belbmno
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 176
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Fly Me to the Moon
    Book Description:

    When a leaf falls on a windy day, it drifts and tumbles, tossed every which way on the breeze. This is chaos in action. In Fly Me to the Moon, Edward Belbruno shows how to harness the same principle for low-fuel space travel--or, as he puts it, "surfing the gravitational field."

    Belbruno devised one of the most exciting concepts now being used in space flight, that of swinging through the cosmos on the subtle fluctuations of the planets' gravitational pulls. His idea was met with skepticism until 1991, when he used it to get a stray Japanese satellite back on course to the Moon. The successful rescue represented the first application of chaos to space travel and ushered in an emerging new field.

    Part memoir, part scientific adventure story, Fly Me to the Moon gives a gripping insider's account of that mission and of Belbruno's personal struggles with the science establishment. Along the way, Belbruno introduces readers to recent breathtaking advances in American space exploration. He discusses ways to capture and redirect asteroids; presents new research on the origin of the Moon; weighs in on discoveries like 2003 UB313 (now named Eris), a dwarf planet detected in the far outer reaches of our solar system--and much more.

    Grounded in Belbruno's own rigorous theoretical research but written for a general audience, Fly Me to the Moon is for anybody who has ever felt moved by the spirit of discovery.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4919-2
    Subjects: Physics, History of Science & Technology, General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Neil deGrasse Tyson

    Sometimes, history comes fast.

    A mere 65 years, 7 months, 3 days, 5 hours, and 43 minutes after Orville Wright left the ground on the first-ever powered flight, Neil Armstrong, the commander of Apollo 11, uttered his first comment from the Lunar surface, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

    Of course the Wright Brothers’ 1903 “aero” plane was heavier than air. Their new fangled machine would be quite useless across the quarter-million-mile airless gap between Earth and the Moon, as would every airplane invented and designed since. So the Apollo missions cannot be considered the natural extension of...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  6. Chapter One A Moment of Discovery
    (pp. 1-4)

    “Houston, we have a problem.” That plea for help got Tom Hanks and his crew out of a jam on Apollo 13. But, who do you call when you don’t work for NASA? . . . NASA!

    At my door was a person I had never seen before. He introduced himself as James Miller. He had a problem.

    The Japanese had launched a space probe to the Moon about three months earlier, in late January 1990. The main purpose of the mission was to demonstrate Japan’s technical prowess in spaceflight. They had been gradually developing their technical abilities in space...

  7. Chapter Two An Uncertain Start
    (pp. 5-8)

    Big ideas start small. Some, as I’ve said, are aha! moments, others develop through years of research, and some, such as the Hiten mission, are a combination of the two. To see how we rescued the Hiten mission, we have to start at the beginning.

    I arrived in Pasadena, California, in January 1985 to work at JPL. It was great to get out of the cold rainy climate of Boston, and the sunny, warm weather in Pasadena could not have been more welcoming. I was starting a new adventure in my life, but had no idea of the roller-coaster ride...

  8. Chapter Three Conventional Way to the Moon
    (pp. 9-16)

    I wanted to keep theoretical research active, and I had a gut feeling that I would find some promising new ideas at JPL from the way trajectories were designed for missions.One thing stood out and caught my interest. Spacecraft were launched to the Moon and other places of our solar system on Hohmann transfers. A transfer, in general, is a trajectory in space from one location to another.

    The person who first formulated a precise way to determine special paths from the Earth to the Moon, or more generally from a given planet to another location in space, was the...

  9. Chapter Four A Question
    (pp. 17-28)

    Is it possible for a spacecraft to transfer from an orbit around the Earth into a lunar orbit without slowing down? If so, this would save a lot of fuel and money. This simple question launched me onto a path that ended up changing my career and life.

    Being new to the field of mission design, I did not know if this was a question that had been previously explored. So, I checked the literature and asked some engineers what they thought. There were no examples anywhere in the literature of a transfer from the Earth that would enable a...

  10. Chapter Five Chaos and Surfing the Gravitational Field
    (pp. 29-36)

    Let’s try to get an intuitive sense for how ballistic capture occurs. Imagine you are in a spacecraft approaching the Moon. If you approach too fast, the Moon’s gravity won’t be able to pull you into orbit. You’ll just fly by it, like a Hohmann transfer. But if you approach too slowly and closely, the Moon’s gravity will pull on you so strongly that you could crash onto the lunar surface (see figure 5.1).

    So, the spacecraft has to slowly creep up on the Moon, like it is stalking it. It has to approximately match the Moon’s circular orbit around...

  11. Chapter Six Using Art to Find Chaotic Regions
    (pp. 37-40)

    When I agreed to work on the LGAS study in 1986, the study manager gave me only a few months to find a transfer to the Moon for the LGAS spacecraft using ballistic capture. Realizing that this was a chaotic type of process, and that it was not previously studied or in the literature, I knew that it was going to be challenging, with no guarantee of success. I needed any help I could get. I would also have to use the computer to illustrate this capture process. So where was I to start?

    Even before the computer was to...

  12. Chapter Seven WSB—A Chaotic No-Man’s-Land
    (pp. 41-48)

    The weak stability boundary is a sort of “no-mans-land” around the Moon, because it is a place where the gravitational tugs from the Earth and the Moon are nearly balanced in relation to a moving spacecraft as it travels around the Moon. The spacecraft doesn’t really know which body—the Earth or Moon—it is moving around; it is confused, so to speak. One moment the Earth pulls it away from the Moon, the next moment the Moon pulls it toward itself. This is a good situation for being captured around the Moon because while the spacecraft is in this...

  13. Chapter Eight Getting to the WSB—Low Energy Transfers
    (pp. 49-54)

    You now know what a WSB is and some of its properties. Before we get back to the rescue of Hiten, let’s explore the properties of the WSB to find a new type of transfer to the Moon.

    We want to find a trajectory that goes to the Moon, and when it arrives at a desired distance from the Moon, that the spacecraft be ballistically captured. This means that the spacecraft arrives at the WSB (see figure 8.1). The term commonly used for this is ballistic capture transfer.

    Returning to the LGAS study, I had computed the WSB of interest...

  14. Chapter Nine Rescue of a Lunar Mission
    (pp. 55-68)

    OK, let’s get back to the rescue of Hiten. After Miller appeared at my door in the spring of 1990, we found a way to get Hiten to the Moon following the same method used for LGAS. Remember, to determine the spacecraft’s trajectory, we are assuming Hiten is already where you want to end up—near the Moon in the WSB. We are working backward in time with our model to see how it got there.The initial results looked very promising, but this type of rescue had never been done before.

    Let’s assume that B, in figure 9.1, is the...

  15. Chapter Ten Significance of Hiten
    (pp. 69-76)

    The route designed for Hiten’s new mission to the Moon represents a turning point in the design of lunar transfers, and transfers in general. A short history of the trajectory design of missions will put the significance of Hiten in perspective.

    In the 1960s, missions to the Moon and other destinations were designed based upon Hohmann transfers, based on two-body modeling—between the spacecraft and the Earth, or the spacecraft and Moon, as we saw earlier. The resulting path to the Moon is just one half of a very thin ellipse that looks almost like a straight line (see figure...

  16. Chapter Eleven Salvage of HGS-1, and a Christmas Present
    (pp. 77-82)

    In early 1996 I was talking to a friend of mine, Howard Marks, in Westport, Connecticut, about the new route to the Moon and other interesting trajectories I had been studying for applications—not just in aerospace, but also in astronomy. Marks is a well-known entrepreneur in New York, and he is familiar with patents.

    He asked me if I’d thought about patenting the route to the Moon used by Hiten. My initial reaction was to say I had, but that I’d assumed it was not possible because, first, I was working at JPL when I discovered it, and therefore...

  17. Chapter Twelve Other Space Missions and Low Energy Transfers
    (pp. 83-94)

    The LGAS mission study at JPL was very successful, leading to a number of innovations in spacecraft and trajectory design. The spacecraft was built in an innovative modular design, and the components were miniaturized. Attempts to get NASA interested in actually making the LGAS mission into a real project were not successful primarily due to the long transfer time of about 1.5 years to go from the Earth to the Moon. A typical response was, “We’ve been to the Moon many times, taking only a few days to get there, so why should we go back and take almost two...

  18. Chapter Thirteen Hopping Comets and Earth Collision
    (pp. 95-118)

    In 1987 I was doing a computer simulation of the motion of a tiny object that was ballistically captured by the Moon in the weak stability boundary. Since ballistic capture is generally temporary in nature, the object (say a rock), will move chaotically for a short of period of time, and then escape the Moon. I was curious about where it would go. My prior work with ballistic capture was focused on applications to spacecraft, wherein a tiny maneuver to stabilize its motion about the Moon can keep it captured for long periods of time. But suppose no maneuver were...

  19. Chapter Fourteen The Creation of the Moon by Another World
    (pp. 119-128)

    The use of low energy trajectories and weak stability boundaries has another interesting application, and it is related to the origin of our Moon.

    An outstanding question in astronomy has to do with understanding where the Moon actually came from. One of the first theories to try to answer this is the sister planet theory. It proposes that the Moon and the Earth were sister planets formed in the solar nebula of gas and dust from which all the planets formed about 4 billion years ago. However, there are some inconsistencies with this. One is that a large iron core...

  20. Chapter Fifteen Beyond the Moon and to the Stars
    (pp. 129-136)

    Throughout this book I have discussed low energy chaotic motions in different situations. These motions include ballistic capture and escape, resonance transitions, and creeping collision orbits. These have been applied to the motions of spacecraft, comets, asteroids, Kuiper belt objects, and planet-sized impactors, and have resulted in new ways to reach the Moon, explore the moons of Jupiter, rescue errant satellites and missions, escape the Earth-Moon system, propose a theory on the origin of the Moon, shed light on resonance hopping comets, and possible hops in the Kuiper belt. These applications to space missions and planetary astronomy only touch the...

  21. Chapter Sixteen A Paradigm Shift and the Future
    (pp. 137-140)

    About one century ago, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had an idea, far-fetched at the time, that a person could fly in a vehicle heavier than air. Most people did not take this seriously and laughed. I can only imagine the ridicule. Then, on December 17, 1903, the brothers proved them wrong by demonstrating sustained flight for twelve seconds and for 120 feet at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The plane that did this is called the Wright Flyer. It wasn’t in the air a long time, but it was an event that shook the world. Soon thereafter, the appearance of...

  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 141-146)
  23. Index
    (pp. 147-148)