Jurczyk: Artemis I to Launch in Mid-Late 2021, HLS Contracts Within Weeks

Jurczyk: Artemis I to Launch in Mid-Late 2021, HLS Contracts Within Weeks

NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said on Friday that the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft, Artemis I, will take place in mid-late 2021. He also said NASA will award contracts “within weeks” for the Human Landing System (HLS) as NASA strives to meet the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 — the Artemis program.  Embracing Artemis is the first step towards a trillion dollar cislunar space economy according to space industry executive Tory Bruno who spoke at the same conference in Laurel, MD.  He urged everyone to stop “squabbling” and support the program.

A date for the first SLS/Orion launch has been eagerly awaited.  NASA originally committed to  November 2018.  That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, but about this time last year, Boeing, the vehicle’s prime contractor, informed NASA it would be delayed into 2021.

NASA initially reacted on March 13 by announcing it would look for commercial alternatives to SLS, but quickly determined no other rockets could meet the schedule, which at that point called for getting humans to the Moon by 2028.  But on March 26, Vice President Pence directed NASA to accelerate its plans to return astronauts to the Moon by four years, to 2024, putting pressure on Boeing to deliver.  Without naming the company, Pence warned that “if our current contractor can’t meet this objective, we’ll find ones that will.”  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed confidence that day that the first SLS/Orion mission, then called Exploration Mission-1, would fly in June 2020.

Steve Jurczyk, Associate Administrator, NASA, speaking at the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium meeting, February 28, 2020. Screengrab.

Nonetheless, the date has slipped to 2021.  Bridenstine told a congressional committee as long ago as July that the baseline was 2021, but NASA officials subsequently insisted they were working towards a date at the end of 2020.  Jurczyk’s comment Friday appears to be the first time since then that a NASA official has publicly acknowledged it will be 2021.  Jurczyk is the highest ranking civil servant at NASA and the third highest official in the agency (behind Bridenstine and Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard, both political appointees).

Speaking at the first meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), Jurczyk provided an update on SLS and other major components needed for Artemis.

SLS — Boeing completed the integration and testing of the core stage and it’s at Stennis in Slidell, Mississippi getting prepared for its Green Run, or full hot fire, test.  All the other hardware for both Orion and SLS is pretty much ready to go and at Kennedy Space Center in the Vehicle Assembly Building.

When we get the core stage, hopefully in the late summer/early fallish time frame, from Stennis to Kennedy we’ll be flowing the vehicle through KSC and integrating for launch hopefully in the mid-’21 time frame, mid-to-late ’21 time frame.  — Steve Jurczyk

He went on to talk about the Human Landing Systems (HLS) needed to take astronauts from a small space station, Gateway, in lunar orbit down to and back from the lunar surface.  NASA plans to procure services from companies instead of building and owning the landers itself, similar to its acquisition strategy for commercial cargo and commercial crew services to take supplies and astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Companies submitted HLS bids on November 5 last year.  Three have gone public about their proposals:  Boeing, Blue Origin (partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper), and Dynetics (partnered with Sierra Nevada Corporation).

NASA plans to award multiple contracts “within weeks,” Jurczyk said. “The next 9-12 months will be critical to nail down the requirements and get to preliminary design review.”  In that vein, he later added that NASA told the companies they will have only 90 days to agree on requirements.

We can’t thrash on the requirements. So on HLS, we said 90 days, we’re going to nail down the requirements. And if we can’t agree, NASA’s just going to tell you, use ours.  We’re going to negotiate technical standards. Either use ours or show equivalency to yours, but after 90 days if we can’t get agreement, you’re going to use ours. …  90 days and we’re done with Human Landing System requirements.

NASA also told them the agency will have “50 engineers in plant, living with you all the time, riding along with your engineers” so “we understand your requirements, we understand your design, we understand your verification plan. We’ll know what the data is, we’ll have looked at it already, so giving us the paper is just a formality” instead of getting it at the end and then needing to go back and ask for more data.

Jurczyk also said details soon will be forthcoming on “Phase 2” of the Artemis program — what comes after 2024.  NASA stresses that its goal is “sustainable” human and robotic lunar exploration, not a “flags and footprints” program like Apollo.

That is what NASA was working on before Pence’s March 2019 directive to get the “first woman and the next man” onto the surface of the Moon by 2024.  Now NASA has a two-phase strategy:  get there “fast” by 2024, and then sustainably by 2028 with international and commercial partners.  The long term goal is to conduct science as well as in situ resource utilization (ISRU) to extract lunar resources and create a “cislunar economy,” referring to the region between the Earth and the Moon.

The conference at JHUAPL was the first meeting of the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium, part of NASA’s Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative.  It fosters academic-industry-government communications and collaborations to “harness the creativity, energy and resources of the nation to help NASA keep the United States at the forefront of lunar exploration.”

The recently introduced 2020 NASA Authorization Act (H.R. 5666) has rekindled debate over NASA’s role at the Moon.  Some worry it will get bogged down there instead of focusing on the longer term — and in their view more exciting — goal of sending humans to Mars.  They want NASA to spend the shortest amount of time there doing only what is essential to test systems before sending humans to Mars.  NASA and others view it as a treasure trove of resources and want to establish infrastructure on the surface to enable space industries of the future.

So far, NASA has not wavered from its plans for expansive, sustainable lunar operations in an Artemis Phase II.  Jurczyk mentioned he just had a four hour “pre-acquisition strategy” meeting about Phase II the day before and NASA is close to revealing those plans. He joked that if he was giving his talk a month from now, that is the one he’d be sharing, “but unfortunately, if I did that presentation today my boss would shoot me because he’s going to do [it] at the end of next month,” meaning the end of March.

Tory Bruno, President and CEO, United Launch Alliance, speaking at the Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium meeting, February 28, 2020. Screengrab.

One prominent advocate of creating a cislunar economy is Tory Bruno, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA), who also spoke at the conference.  Bruno shared his “Cislunar 1000” vision with the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in July 2018 and continues to promote it.

At the conference, he talked about how Artemis is the first step toward a “multi-trillion dollar sustainable cislunar economic zone.” Asked to name one concrete step that needs to be taken in the next 12 months to begin to realize that vision, he answered that everyone needs to stop arguing and support Artemis.

The first thing is to embrace the Artemis program.  This is finally our opportunity where the government has said here is a major multi-billion dollar commitment to put permanent infrastructure on the Moon.  Stop squabbling over whether or not Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit is perfect or any of this other stuff and get behind the damn program and row the rowboat.  That’s number one.  There’s always a better way.  But now’s the time to move.  — Tory Bruno

He added that work also needs to be done on the policy side, particularly establishing a regulatory environment that will allow businesses to grow.  “I’m talking about private industry in space, a self sustaining commercial economy that will make it impossible for us to just plant a flag and go home when we get bored.  But you can’t have a business …  without regulation. ….  You have to have the right to go out and put your ice mining claim in place, own that, have the right to mine it, have the right to sell what you pull out.  We don’t really have that legal framework now, it’s ambiguous….”

NASA is requesting a substantial increase in its budget not only for FY2021, but the subsequent four years, to execute Artemis.  Its $25.246 billion request for FY2021, a 12 percent increase over FY2020, includes $12.371 billion for Artemis.  The FY2021 request for HLS alone is $3.370 billion.  Over the 5-year time period (FY2021-2025), NASA anticipates spending more than $21 billion on HLS and a total of $71 billion on Artemis.

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