Lueders Adds to Mystery of Artemis III Landing Site: “More to Come”

Lueders Adds to Mystery of Artemis III Landing Site: “More to Come”

The head of NASA’s human spaceflight program has added more mystery to the question of whether the first Artemis lunar landing mission will go to the South Pole. The issue arose earlier this week when NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine hinted that returning to an Apollo landing site in the equatorial region was under consideration. It was unclear if he meant for the first mission or later on, however.

Last year, Vice President Pence directed NASA to land “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon by 2024 and recommended it be at the lunar South Pole because of its “great scientific, economic, and strategic value.”

NASA probes have detected ice in the permanently shadowed craters of the South Pole. That makes the region of interest not only to scientists, but to anyone who wants to extract the ice and use it to support lunar outposts or convert it into fuel for transportation among the Moon, Earth and Mars.

Getting to the polar regions is more difficult than landing near the Moon’s equator, which is why the Apollo landing sites were relatively close to the equator.

Kathy Lueders, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEOMD). Credit: NASA

On Monday, in answer to a question about whether NASA might return to an Apollo site, Bridenstine replied “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,” then an Apollo site might be an alternative.

He stressed that no decision had been made and his answer left open the possibility that he was simply musing about a “what if” situation rather than hinting that a destination change is in the works.

Speaking at a Washington Space Business Roundtable event today, however, Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, added to the mystery.

Instead of dispelling the idea that plans are in flux, she replied to a question about Bridenstine’s comments by confirming that NASA is looking at options on how to make a decision.

So we’re really looking at a bunch of different options for making a decision.  I don’t want to have it be a spoiler alert.  …  We’re looking at different ways to get more communities to participate in that decision. We know that … wherever the initial missions are is a big interest and so we’re actually trying to find a way to get more … participation in this. So, more to come.

Getting people back on the Moon requires a rocket, a spacecraft to accommodate the crew, and Human Landing Systems (HLS) to get the crew from lunar orbit down to the surface and back.

The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew spacecraft have been in development for years, but their schedules have repeatedly slipped. Right now, the first launch, Artemis I, is expected in November 2021. A test flight, it will not carry a crew. NASA is conducting “Green Run” tests of the SLS core stage at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, but the COVID-19 pandemic and several hurricanes have impacted those activities. The agency is hoping to have the final test, where all four engines are fired on a test stand for the full 8 minutes needed to reach orbit, next month. Lueders did not give an update on that test today, but said the plan is for the core stage and the other parts of SLS (its side-mounted solid rocket boosters and upper stage) to be stacked at Kennedy Space Center “early next fall.”

Development of HLS, on the other hand, is just beginning. NASA awarded 10-month contracts to SpaceX, Dynetics, and a team led by Blue Origin on April 30. It said it would choose one or two of those to proceed into development in February 2021.

Today Lueders was not definitive about that timeline, saying only that the decision would be made “in the spring.”

All the companies are making progress, but funding uncertainty is looming. Congress is expected to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the first several weeks or months of FY2021, which begins on October 1. The duration has not been settled.

Until FY2021 appropriations are enacted, agencies like NASA will be held to their FY2020 funding levels.

NASA received $600 million for HLS in FY2020 and is requesting $3.4 billion for FY2021. With only four years to meet the Trump Administration’s 2024 directive — timed to coincide with the end of a second Trump term if he wins reelection — HLS needs a lot of money, fast. A several month delay will be problematical. Lueders acknowledged the “hard decisions” she will have to make for the programs within her portfolio under a CR.

Even then, the House-passed FY2021 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which funds NASA, provides only $628 million for HLS instead of the $3.4 billion requested, so the funding shortfall may remain after the CR.  The Senate has not acted on any of the FY2021 appropriations bills yet.

Lueders also announced that the long-awaited reorganization of her Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) was approved by NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk yesterday.

HEOMD reorganization planning has been underway for quite a long time, dating back to Bill Gerstenmaier’s tenure as head of the directorate. He was abruptly dismissed in July 2019 and replaced in December by Doug Loverro, who suddenly resigned in May 2020. Lueders has been in the job since June 2020 and said the final plan builds on their work.

Some steps have taken place already, like moving HEOMD’s offices in charge of biological and physical sciences research to the Science Mission Directorate.

The other changes are approved now, Lueders said. They include creating a commercial services development division, headed by Phil McAlister, focused on NASA’s efforts to commercialize operations in low Earth orbit (LEO) — the  commercial crew and commercial LEO space station efforts. Another is having one division devoted to the initial phases of the Artemis program through the Artemis III landing in 2024, and another, led by Mark Kirasich, on later missions during what NASA calls the sustainable phase of lunar exploration. He will manage the HLS and Gateway programs. Another division will continue to manage the International Space Station. Robyn Gatens was recently named acting head of that division. Lueders did not specify if there are changes to management of two other parts of HEOMD, the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) and Launch Services programs.  She added that a new Systems Engineering and Integration (SE&I) organization reporting to her was created to consistently manage programs at a high level across the directorate.

Update:  An earlier version of this article said all of the Apollo landing sites were equatorial, but Apollo 15 landed at 26 degrees North and Apollo 17 at 20 degrees North. Also, NASA provided more information today (September 17) on the reorganization.  The commercial cargo program will be managed by the ISS division, not McAlister’s commercial division. We’ve updated the article accordingly.

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