Gateway No Longer Mandatory for 2024 Moon Landing

Gateway No Longer Mandatory for 2024 Moon Landing

The head of NASA’s human exploration program said today that the lunar Gateway that has been a linchpin of the Artemis program no longer is a mandatory component of getting astronauts back on the Moon by 2024.  NASA has decided to “decouple” getting to the Moon “fast” versus getting there “sustainably” and Gateway is not needed to get there fast.  This dramatic turnaround was driven by the need to meet the Trump Administration’s deadline to put astronauts on the lunar surface before the end of a second Trump term if he is reelected.

Doug Loverro. Photo Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Doug Loverro, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, explained the change at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee this morning. Yesterday NASA announced the first two science experiments that will be flown aboard the Gateway.  Loverro said he was able to accommodate science payloads on Gateway because it no longer is on the critical path for the 2024 landing.

Vice President Pence directed NASA almost exactly one year ago to land “the first woman and the next man” on the lunar surface by 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency assuming he wins reelection.  NASA had been planning to do that in 2028 and is adjusting its plans to accelerate the schedule by four years.

Loverro took over as the head of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) in December, succeeding Bill Gerstenmaier who was abruptly dismissed from the post five months earlier.  Loverro is a veteran DOD space program manager and policy expert, but this is his first time at NASA.  He is in charge of a broad portfolio that includes operating the International Space Station (ISS) and overseeing development of the commercial crew systems to take astronauts to and from it, but his major task is executing the Artemis program.

Loverro said today that the Artemis architecture that was being pursued prior to his arrival did not follow the maxim that if something is not necessary it is a distraction.  He has concluded that the Gateway is not necessary to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024, though it will be needed later for a sustainable lunar program.

“The Gateway itself is not mandatory to get to the Moon initially, so we are taking Gateway out of the critical path to go ahead and get to the Moon.”

Until now, NASA’s plan was to place the Gateway, a small space station, in orbit around the Moon to serve as a transfer point.  Astronauts would launch from Earth in an Orion capsule atop a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, dock at the Gateway, and transfer to vehicles that would take them down to and back from the surface.  Once back on the Gateway, the astronauts would transfer back into Orion and return to Earth. The design of the Human Landing System (HLS) vehicles has not been finalized, but NASA’s idea was for three spacecraft — a Transfer Vehicle, a Descent Vehicle, and an Ascent Vehicle — that would be launched separately and integrated together at the Gateway.

The need for the Gateway has been explained in the past as due to the fact that the initial version of SLS — Block I — coupled with the Orion spacecraft’s service module does not provide enough thrust to place Orion and a lander into a sufficiently low lunar orbit to go directly down to and back from the Moon as was done in Apollo.  The Block I SLS is capable of sending 25 metric tons (MT) to the Moon, called Trans-Lunar Injection or TLI.  Two more capable versions are planned, Block IB (34-37 MT for crew) and Block II  (45 MT), but repeated cost overruns and schedule delays for Block I have pushed those off into the future.

By 2024, only Block I is expected to be ready although SLS advocates insist that the Block IB, with the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), could be ready if enough funding is provided. That is a matter of some dispute and NASA’s FY2021 budget request proposes, as it did last year, to defer development of EUS so Boeing, the prime contractor for both SLS and EUS, focuses on Block I, which is years late.  NASA’s Office of Inspector General just issued another report on SLS cost overruns and schedule delays.  Congress rejected the proposal to defer EUS last year and provided $300 million.

The need for a multi-part HLS is based on the premise that commercial rockets, not SLS, will launch the components. Those that will be available before 2024 are less capable than SLS so can launch only smaller pieces.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stresses that a significant difference between Artemis and Apollo is that it is not just a U.S. government program, but will involve commercial and international partners.  Using commercial rockets in addition to SLS has been a cornerstone of the plan, especially since the expectation is that only one SLS per year will be built and it will be very expensive, $2 billion per rocket according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

NASA issued a request for proposals for HLS last fall based on the Gateway architecture, although companies were allowed to offer alternatives.  Proposals were submitted on November 5.  NASA wants to award more than one contract.  An announcement is expected soon.

In the meantime, however, NASA’s thinking clearly has evolved. What that means for companies that submitted proposals using Gateway is an open question.  Three companies have disclosed that they submitted proposals.  Boeing’s does not use the Gateway.  Blue Origin, teamed with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, does.  Dynetics, teamed with Sierra Nevada, has not revealed any details.  SpaceX is also thought to have bid on the contract, but has not confirmed it.

Prior to Pence’s directive last year, NASA’s overarching goal was not simply “boots on the Moon” like Apollo, but a sustainable program of human and robotic lunar exploration and resource utilization as well as human trips to Mars.  It kicked off with getting the Gateway in place by 2028 and astronauts on the surface that year.

Pence’s 2024 mandate upended that strategy.  The new mantra became getting to the Moon fast.  Sustainability was second.  Today Loverro said the agency is now decoupling the two entirely.  Gateway is part of the sustainability phase, not getting there fast.

Loverro insisted NASA remains committed to Gateway and involving international partners.  NASA has been working on agreements with its ISS partners for several years deciding what roles they will play.  Loverro said today “not a single international partner was ready to do anything on Gateway till 2026.” He believes ultimately Gateway will be “far better” because the schedule is more realistic.

Cost and schedule were drivers in taking Gateway off the critical path.  He explained the changes were to reduce costs “so I don’t get into a struggle between I can pay for a human lander or I can pay for Gateway because that struggle was upon us in the budget. … I was going to have to cancel Gateway because I couldn’t afford it.  But by simplifying it and taking it out of the critical path I can now keep it on track.”

He also said they needed to “de-risk” the program by limiting the need to develop new technologies or do things for the first time.  Where that cannot be avoided, the risk needs to occur early in the program.

Risk is driven by new technology development.  If you’re going to do any new technology development, you’re not going to do it in four-and-a-half years. Program risk is driven by which things haven’t you done in space before. … There is this theory of success for going to the Moon that requires us to launch a lander in three individual pieces that would meet up at the Moon in such a way that they can survive at descent and ascent and still meet the mission requirements. We’ve never done that before.  We’d like to avoid doing things we’ve never done before. … If you have risks that you can’t take away … at least burn them down early… “

One of Loverro’s predecessors at NASA, Doug Cooke, now a consultant to Boeing, testified to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee last year that NASA’s plan for the Gateway and three-part landers “doesn’t make sense” because it was too complicated.

Loverro echoed Cooke today. “The current program plan that NASA has been working basically has 34 critical operations that are necessary to get to the Moon and about 25 of them never happen until the final mission, Artemis 3, gets to the Moon. That makes no sense.”

Cooke advocated for using only SLS to get to the Moon by 2024 by developing the Block IB version with an EUS.  A Block I would launch Orion, a Block IB would launch the lander, and they would dock in lunar orbit.  No Gateway needed.  That is what Boeing proposed in its HLS bid two months later.

Loverro said he was not ready to talk about the new plan in any more detail because it is not “locked into stone yet, which really means we don’t have it locked into budget yet, we don’t have it locked into policy yet.”  He also conceded many challenges lie ahead.

“We’re going to have unexpected things happen in this program, there’s no question. … We’re going to have tests that fail, we’re going to have dockings that don’t occur.  … And we’re not going to get all of the money we ask for.”  But none of those “are going to be an excuse to not get the job done.”

An immediate unexpected hiccup is the coronavirus.  The SLS core stage is at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi where preparations are underway for a Green Run test this summer.  Loverro said he has been talking with NASA’s Chief Medical Officer to determine if every worker’s temperature should to be taken to “make sure we don’t have the entire workforce down for a month.”

Congress is debating the Administration’s plans for Artemis and sending humans to Mars.  The House and Senate have very different versions of NASA authorization legislation pending and the appropriations committees are considering the FY2021 budget request that includes significant funding increases to pay for it.   With the coronavirus situation consuming congressional and Administration attention, a timetable for reaching agreement on a path forward is up in the air.

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