Retrofuturist Flashback: Moon Tugs


A lunar future that never was. ©Bettmann/CORBIS

If you look back to NASA's 1969 Space Transportation System (STS) proposal ,you'll read all about space shuttles, as well as two bits of space tech that never made their way to reality: the nuclear space ferry and the space tug.

In this envisioned future, NASA would use space tugs (AKA orbital maneuvering vehicles) to move crew and cargo between different Earth orbits, but they'd also see use as lunar tugs between the moon's orbit and surface.

That's what we see in this 1970 illustration from an Gruman Aerospace Corp space tug concept:

This version of the tug is outfitted with landing gear and cargo deployment kits. The tug would be delivered to the moon or into earth orbit as the payload of an expendable booster rocket or of a reusable shuttle vehicle. Tugs delivered to the moon would be used to shuttle men and/or space equipment between lunar orbit and the lunar surface. Tugs placed into earth orbit would provide a crew and material intersatellite transport system.

The STS system would have seen astronauts leave the Earth for low orbit aboard a chemically-fueled shuttle. They'd dock with the space station and then tugs would provide transport to other orbits for satellite maintenance, etc. Finally the nuclear-powered NERVA would provide travel to the moon, where lunar tugs would handle local traffic.

Will space tugs and lunar tugs ever be a reality? The idea still comes up from time to time, but only time will tell. After all, if we scrapped it for budgetary reasons 40 years ago, what chances does it have today?


About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.