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For some reason, all the nations in the world have banded together. Their goal? Go to the Moon. Their budget? As much as the planet and humans can throw at it.

How fast could we build a reliable and safe (think the reliability and safety standards of NASA missions), 3 people manned return mission to the Moon? [Assume we don't have any spare rockets / parts just lying around.] The astronauts will land on the moon and stay on the moon for about 24 hours.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. Please be more specific: what do you mean with reliable and safe? Put a number next to it. Moreover, what is the worldbuilding problem you are trying to solve? You can find more about our standard by taking the tour and visiting the help center. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 25 at 8:35
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch, reliable and safe are qualified rather than quantified, "safe return mission" means they have to get there and back again alive, intact, no permanent damage. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 25 at 8:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Separatrix, reliability is qualified in MTBF (mean time between failure), safety can also be quantified. Real space missions are deemed safe (2 catastrophic incident over tens of Shuttle flights), but still far from the safety of commercial air flights (2 catastrophic incidents over a few hundreds flights grounded the 737 Max). $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 25 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch, only a single mission has been requested, you don't get to fail. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 25 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ Is this our world? Or is this world that is similar - e.g., they haven't actually went to the moon? Or they might not even have any space tech? Because this should have a BIG impact. I'd assume that the biggest time factor right now for us is producing a craft capable of going to the moon and back, however we do have facilities, knowledge, and experience in creating such crafts as well as space flight. Since we also have astronauts, we have some of the training out of the way, too. But if nobody had gone to the moon, that'd be different. If nobody has left the atmosphere, even more. $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Sep 25 at 9:01
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It depends entirely on how desperate the need is

Or rather, what likelihood of failure the organisers are willing to accept.

We already have a design for a machine that can take three people to the moon, allow them to stay there for 24 hours and return. We went from zero to first launch of the Saturn V in about 5 years. And the plans still exist, and are even public domain. By far the simplest way to get back to the moon is to take them off the shelf, knock off the dust and start building.

Except that that's crazy, because that technology is old, and that's a problem for two reasons. Firstly the supply chains (indeed the entire industries) that support the availability of the component parts are gone and would also need to be rebuilt, an exponentially expanding logistical challenge. And secondly, the capabilities of the equipment are, by modern standards, horrifically limited and unsafe. The Saturn V autopilot, for instance, was a computer with a clock speed of 2.048MHz and a processing capability of 12 kiloflops. That's less powerful than an Arduino. The main computer of the Apollo command module was the size of a suitcase (and would incur excess baggage charges by most airlines) and not significantly more powerful. Components were huge, weighty, very limited in their functionality and would be oh so easy to replace with modern components which would be much easier to manufacture with modern supply chains and far more feature-full.

Assuming that they work correctly. Assuming that replacing a 30kg lump of metal with a single featherweight integrated circuit won't skew the centre of gravity of the ship in an unexpected way. Assuming that swapping in 3D-printed titanium or carbon fibre instead of milled lithium or whatever else they used doesn't have some unexpected effect. Assuming that whatever interface they introduce to interface 32- or 64-bit modern electronics to the 14- or 15-bit original electronics doesn't have any unexpected bugs. And so on and so forth.

You can iron out all these bugs with testing, the more extensive (and lengthy) the better. The longer a timeframe you allow, the more stuff would get swapped out for modern components until, Thesean Ship style, you'd end up with a design using mostly modern parts.

More realistically, engineers now probably wouldn't start from Apollo, but from more modern rocket programs, but the principle is the same: you can rush something out and have an exponentially increasing chance of mission failure, or you can go slower and steadier, and be progressively more certain of being able to do the mission successfully and safely.

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    $\begingroup$ An all-nation effort is by necessity driven by government bureucrats. Government bureaucrats are not willing to accept risk. Even assuming that the rocket will get built, it will never be launched because to launch it one must fire the engines and fire may jeopardize the rocket. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 25 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Bureaucrats will accept risk that has been appropriately signed off in triplicate by the junior deputy undersecretary and the inter-committee committee on committees... $\endgroup$ – Stephen Sep 25 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, risk is acceptable to bureaucrats as long as you don't get any of it on their expensively tailored suits. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Sep 25 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP: It's not just the risk of failure that's a problem with bureaucrats. It's that the more bureaucrats you have, the more time they will spend being bureaucrats rather than allowing productive things to be done. A multi-national effort will have more bureaucrats than a single-nation one (since every nation will insist on its own set), making the project take far longer. So the optimum size is an organization that has just sufficient resources for the task, which is roughly the size of the US in the 1960s... $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Sep 25 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ Did I miss the answer, or is this completely void of any actual estimates? "You can go slow, or you can go faster" was part of a popular song, but it doesn't really answer the question. It would be a good aside to add onto an actual answer though. $\endgroup$ – Loduwijk Sep 26 at 22:25
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The main time-eaters on such a projects are tests and reconnaissance mission. So the answer depends on required reliability.

1) If we can "afford" to loose mission or two - than it would take about the same as Apollo program - about 5 years for first landing (Apollo nearly lost one mission and there were deaths on tests). But by post-coldwar standards this is too risky. Apollo mission was held at fastest rate possible, not by money, but by R&D and production. Modern computers would reduce risks, but not time: R&D is about people communication and thinking - and this can't be accelerated much.

2) If we want to send people on the Moon reliably, we would need a lot of preparations, Earth-based and Moon-based tests (like first lander will test-land without people and will be a backup if manned lander would malfunction, and etc.). So it would be about 10-15 years from start to landing.

3) If you need to land "at all costs" - you will need about 6 month to couple of years. It would be a strange mission: slightly modified Russian Soyuz (which was made from an actual moon-lander) on top on Falcon Heavy rocket with some custom intermediate stage (to brake at moon orbit and accelerate back). But I would bet 300 dollars against 100 that this mission would fail.

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If all the nations in the world banded together and formed a public-sector agency to consider the best way to define and implement this goal, and if every person on Earth contributed to the project to the best of his ability, it would probably take about nine years from commitment to safe return.

If all the nations in the world banded together and formed a superfund and hired Elon Musk and then left him alone to get on with it, it would probably take about two years. It would be profitable in nine.

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    $\begingroup$ I think that you are wildly optimistic when you say that a world-wide public sector agency would achieve the desired result in nine years. Six months for the public tender and procurement of the presentation software in which to make the slides for the inception report. One year to get the inception report approved. One year to select the general structure of the mission. Etc. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 25 at 11:59
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    $\begingroup$ To be fair, you're not REALLY hiring Elon Musk, you're hiring Gwynne Shotwell, and that's who you want anyway. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Sep 26 at 17:37

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