Hale Urges More Transparency in Artemis Commercial Contracts

Hale Urges More Transparency in Artemis Commercial Contracts

The chairman of a NASA advisory committee, Wayne Hale, is urging NASA to avoid contracts that prevent release of information to the public because companies claim it as proprietary. That applies particularly to Public-Private Partnerships like the Human Landing Systems being developed for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the  Moon.

N. Wayne Hale. Photo Credit: Special Aerospace Services

In a discussion with the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) yesterday, Hale urged them “to encourage NASA not to get tied up in proprietary contracts where they can’t release all the details” because the “taxpayers have a stake and need to know.”

ASEB is part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and provides independent strategic advice to NASA. The Board held its semi-annual meeting this week and invited Hale to brief them on the current plan, or architecture, for Artemis missions to the Moon and Mars.

Hale emphasized he was speaking only for himself, but he chairs the Human Exploration and Operations Committee of the NASA Advisory Council, an internal agency group that reports to the NASA Administrator.

A 32-year NASA veteran, he was a space shuttle flight director for 15 years and space shuttle program manager from 2005-2008 as the shuttle returned to flight after the 2003 Columbia tragedy. He retired from NASA in 2010 and now is Director of Human Spaceflight and Energy Services for  Special Aerospace Services, an engineering and manufacturing company. His counsel is widely sought in the human spaceflight community because of his extensive experience and willingness to share frank assessments of what has gone right and what hasn’t.

When he got to SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System (HLS), he said it’s the part of the program he knows least about because NASA hasn’t briefed his committee on it yet. His presentation is based on what can be found on the Internet.

Starship will be used for Artemis III, the first Artemis mission to land astronauts on the lunar surface. It is currently scheduled for 2025, just three years from now.

NASA awarded the HLS contract to SpaceX a year-and-a-half ago in April 2021. It is a Public-Private Partnership, a fixed-price procurement mechanism where the government sets requirements, but companies make their own decisions on how to meet them. The government and the company both invest in development and the government pays the company as it meets specified milestones. Once the system is certified, NASA simply purchases services with the expectation the company will find other customers to close the business case. The company retains ownership, not the government.

NASA used PPPs to procure commercial cargo and commercial crew services for the International Space Station and is expanding them to other aspects of the human spaceflight program including HLS and commercial space stations.  NASA intentionally seeks multiple providers to ensure redundancy and competition, so companies hold the details of their designs and plans close to the vest on a proprietary basis. The agency is currently seeking additional HLS  providers for future Artemis missions, for example.

That presents problems for groups like ASEB and NAC-HEO that are tasked with providing advice to the agency and for taxpayers who are footing the bill. The government owns the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft that will take the crew to meet Starship in lunar orbit, so much more detail is publicly available about them, but not systems procured through PPPs.

Illustration of SpaceX’s Starship on the lunar surface. For scale, note the astronauts at the base of the lander. Credit: SpaceX

Using what he’s been able to glean, he seems to have some reservations.

Starship’s crew cabin is at the top of the very tall lander and the crew will exit about 100 feet off the surface, he said. How they get between the cabin and the surface “is going to be very interesting.” Starship also cannot launch directly from the Earth to the Moon, but must stop to refuel in Earth orbit. No orbiting fuel depots exist yet, nor has the transfer of cryogenic propellants in weightlessness been demonstrated. He’s seen estimates that 3-8 launches of SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy transportation system to Earth orbit are needed to launch and fuel the Starship HLS. Little is known about about how all of this will be executed because “the details in the design are proprietary.”

Credit: Wayne Hale presentation to Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, October 20, 2022

He also seemed uncomfortable that although NASA is requiring an uncrewed test flight of Starship HLS before Artemis III, the lander does not need to demonstrate it can lift off from the lunar surface, only that it can land. NASA’s HLS program manager “Lisa Watson-Morgan keeps telling me, taking off from the Moon, there’s no requirement for that demonstration, although I would be very interested in that if it were me. But it’s not required.”

NASA heralds the Artemis program as different from Apollo because the goal is not just a few landings, but a sustained human presence on the Moon. What comes after Artemis III is still in the planning stages, however.

Hale laid out the overall plan to build a Gateway space station in lunar orbit resupplied by lunar transportation vehicles and a surface Base Camp. They are intended to support one NASA mission to the surface each year: two astronauts for 6.5-14 days from 2025 through 2031 and four astronauts for 30 days thereafter.

Credit: Wayne Hale presentation to Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, October 20, 2022.

That is notional, though. There is no landing on the Artemis IV mission, for example. That will launch the first elements of Gateway.

Two questions he is often asked, Hale said, is why Artemis has such a “goofy” architecture and what is NASA’s “exit strategy” for the Moon — when will NASA leave the Moon and go on to Mars.

The goofy characterization is because Artemis is so complicated compared to the “elegant” Apollo model. For Apollo, the Saturn V rocket launched the Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM) and the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) together directly to the Moon. The CSM’s engines lowered the module into the correct orbit for the LEM to travel down to the surface and back up again, rejoining the CSM and the crew headed back to Earth.

The current version of the Space Launch System rocket, Block I, now expected to make its first flight on November 14, is not as powerful as Saturn V. It cannot launch both the crew capsule, Orion, and the lander at the same time. (A future version, Block IB, will have a greater lift capacity.) Orion’s Service Module, provided by the European Space Agency, is not designed to lower Orion’s orbit sufficiently to access to the surface. The HLS must be launched separately and meet up with Orion in a unique elliptical Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon. The crew transfers from Orion to the HLS to make the trip down and up, and back into Orion for the trip home. After Artemis III, the Gateway space station in NRHO will be the transfer point.

Why so complex? In part because the Apollo orbit allowed access only to equatorial regions and NRHO makes the entire lunar surface accessible.  And because that’s the system we have today and it would be too costly and time-consuming to start over, Hale said.

Source: Wayne Hale presentation to the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, October 20, 2022.

As for the exit strategy, Hale said there isn’t one. NASA is using the Moon, just three days travel time from Earth, as a proving ground to test technologies and human adaptation before sending astronauts all the way to Mars. Hale said NASA is developing criteria to determine when it will have learned enough to safely embark on those Mars missions, but that doesn’t mean it will end activities on the Moon. “NASA, the United States, will never leave the Moon.”

NASA has been studying how to get to Mars for “its entire life,” Hale said. In December 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration’s United States Space Priorities Framework reaffirmed the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon and going on to Mars so there is no need to debate why do it, “the direction has been given.”

The pacing item is the budget. NASA cannot discuss “how the sausage is made” so it is a matter of waiting to see what the President requests and what Congress appropriates. NASA has charts showing how Moon and Mars fit together, but Hale pointed out they do not include dates when various steps will be achieved.

Source: Wayne Hale presentation to the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, October 20, 2022.

He cautioned that cost will be factor and commercial partnerships “promise to bring down costs,” but he wants more of the details of those partnerships to be made public.

Source: Wayne Hale presentation to the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, October 20, 2022.

Nevertheless, his bottom line is that Artemis “appears to be the best architecture given goals and the near-term capabilities.”

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