Bridenstine: Returning to Apollo Landing Sites Offers Advantages

Bridenstine: Returning to Apollo Landing Sites Offers Advantages

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine put in a good word today for returning to Apollo landing sites. NASA’s objective is to land the next U.S. astronaut crew at the Moon’s South Pole, but if that was determined to be “out of reach,” visiting an Apollo site near the Moon’s equator might yield scientific and inspirational benefits. He stressed that no such decision has been made.

Bridenstine spoke to a meeting of NASA’s Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) this morning.  In response to a question about whether there is any plan in the future to return to an Apollo landing site to recover materials and study how they fared after 50 years on the surface, Bridenstine was open to the idea.

Those decisions have not yet been made. For the first mission, Artemis III, our objective is to get to the South Pole, and, of course, the South Pole is where there’s the most interest right now because that’s where the water ice is and we need to characterize it, we need to understand how to extract it and utilize it.

But I would imagine that there is going to be great interest in some of those [Apollo] sites.

I would not, it would not surprise me, if, for example, if we made a determination that the South Pole might be out of reach for Artemis III, which I’m not saying it is or isn’t, the question is, OK, if you’re going to go to the equatorial region again … how are you going to learn the most. And you could argue that you’ll learn the most by going to the places where we put gear in the past.

So there could be, you know, scientific discoveries there and, of course, just the inspiration of going back to the original Apollo site would be pretty amazing as well and establishing, again, norms of behavior, and we want to make sure that those sites are protected forever.  So I think there’s opportunity there as well. But those decisions haven’t been made at this time.

Artemis III will be the mission that lands “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon in 2024 under the Trump Administration’s plan.

Bridenstine’s comment about possibly going to an Apollo site “if we made a determination that the South Pole might be out of reach for Artemis III, which I’m not saying it is or isn’t” was ear-catching. The question was generally about the future, not about the landing site for the first mission. Whether that portends a potential change in plans or was merely a casual “what if” remark remains to be seen.

NASA is assiduously trying to meet the Trump Administration’s directive to land humans back on the Moon by 2024, the end of a Trump second term if he wins reelection. NASA has been building a Moon-capable rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and crew spacecraft, Orion, for many years, but is only just now beginning work on the landing systems to get the crew from lunar orbit down to the surface and back.  Designing, developing, building and testing those Human Landing Systems (HLS) in just four years is a challenge.

NASA awarded three 10-month contracts on April 30 to Dynetics; a “National Team” led by Blue Origin with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper; and SpaceX.  It plans to choose one or two by February 2021 to proceed into development for the 2024 mission, though the others could remain in the running for missions beyond that. NASA is planning “sustainable” exploration and utilization of the Moon for the indefinite future.

NASA plans to procure the landers as public-private partnerships where the companies invest some of their own money in development and retain ownership, while NASA buy services, the same model the agency is using for the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that support the International Space Station.  NASA’s investment is substantial, however, and it is not clear if Congress will provide the necessary funding.  For FY2021, the House approved just $624 million of the $3.4 billion requested.  The Senate has not acted yet.

Dynetics announced today that it will premiere a virtual look at a full-scale model of its lander on YouTube at 9:00 am ET (8:00 am Central Time) tomorrow.  An AIAA webinar will follow in the afternoon.

Blue Origin made its own announcement today.  Its lander, Blue Moon, passed its Systems Requirement Review, the first “gated milestone” for the program.

SpaceX is conducting tests (“hops”) of prototypes of its Starship — a combination rocket stage and crew quarters — at its Boca Chica, Texas facility.  Starship will be launched by a huge SpaceX rocket designated “Super Heavy.” No tests of that vehicle have taken place so far. Meanwhile, a Starship prototype hop to 18,300 meters (60,000 feet) is coming up soon, a significant increase over the altitude of the last one (150 meters).

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