Lunar Gateway On Again For 2023

Lunar Gateway On Again For 2023

NASA’s plans for the Artemis program to put astronauts on the Moon by 2024 continue to evolve. Despite recent statements from high ranking NASA officials that the small space station, Gateway, planned for lunar orbit was not needed before the 2024 landing, it now intends to launch it in 2023.  Key Democrats in Congress recently complained about the lack of a “transparent architecture” for the Artemis program as plans keep changing.

Doug Loverro, head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, surprised just about everyone in March by telling a NASA advisory committee that the agency no longer considered Gateway as mandatory to support the 2024 landing.

Until then, Gateway was an essential part of the Artemis plan, or “architecture.”  It called for a crew in an Orion spacecraft to launch on a NASA Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to the Gateway where they would transfer to Human Landing Systems (HLS) waiting there.  The HLS vehicles themselves were to be autonomously assembled at the Gateway after launching in segments from Earth.  After journeying down to and back from the surface on an HLS, the crew would transfer back into Orion for the trip home.

Illustration of an Orion capsule approaching the Gateway in lunar orbit with Earth in the background. The module with the large solar panels is the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE).  The module with the twin circular solar panels is the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO).  Credit: NASA

In March, however, Loverro said that concept had to be scuttled because the Gateway was unaffordable in the near term and assembling the HLS vehicles at the Gateway too risky.  Gateway still would be needed for sustainable lunar operations in the future, but not to get astronauts on the Moon by 2024, the imperative dictated by the Trump Administration.

Until last year, NASA was planning to return astronauts to the Moon by 2028.  On March 26, 2019, however, Vice President Pence directed NASA to accelerate the schedule by four years to 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency if he wins reelection in November. Pence chairs the White House National Space Council.

NASA had gone to great lengths to differentiate its return to the Moon in the 21st Century from the Cold War-era Apollo program by insisting this time America would go there “sustainably,” with international and commercial partners, for the long term not just to put “boots on the Moon” to display American prowess. Pence’s announcement upended that. NASA now describes its effort in two phases: getting to the Moon “fast” by 2024 and then sustainably by 2028.

Loverro took the helm of NASA’s human exploration program in December and is working diligently on developing an executable architecture.  In March, he said he was forced to choose between HLS, which is essential for getting to the lunar surface, or the Gateway, because of cost. By delaying Gateway beyond 2024 he could afford both. “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.”

At the same time, Loverro indicated a change in plans for HLS.  Instead of assembling them at the Gateway, he now wanted them launched from Earth already integrated into a single piece.

NASA awarded contracts to three companies last week to refine their HLS concepts over the next 10 months.  During a media teleconference announcing the awards on April 30, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine reiterated that the Gateway was not part of the 2024 plan.  None of the three HLS designs require the Gateway.

Just one week later, the Gateway is back in the picture.

The initial version of the Gateway consists of a Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) for the crew and a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) that can maneuver the Gateway into various orbits around the Moon as needed.  Maxar is building the PPE under a Public-Private Partnership wherein, at least until now, Maxar would build, launch, own, and operate the PPE for one year after which NASA would have the option to purchase it.  NASA is awarding a sole-source contract to Northrop Grumman for HALO, which is derived from the company’s Cygnus spacecraft that takes cargo to the International Space Station.  HALO and PPE were intended to be launched separately and dock in lunar orbit, but apparently now will be integrated together before launch.

In a statement to today, NASA explained the new plan.

“NASA is now planning to assemble the first two pieces of the Gateway on Earth and launch them together to lunar orbit by 2023. This decision reduces program technical risk while enhancing mission success by eliminating the need for two segments to dock in Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit, enabling the two elements to be tested and launched pre-integrated.” — NASA

Northrop Grumman will be responsible for testing and integration under its contract with NASA, which is not yet finalized.  A preliminary design review of the HALO module is planned for the end of this year.

The statement did not explain how NASA solved the cost issue that Loverro cited in March, saying only that Maxar “continues the design and development of its spacecraft.”  It also did not explain how the decision to integrate PPE with HALO before launch impacts the contract with Maxar, which was responsible for launch and one year of on-orbit operations.

It also did not say what launch vehicle would be used.  Ars Technica, which first reported this news, quoted Loverro as saying NASA determined SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is capable of launching the combined HALO/PPE, but stopped short of saying it would be selected.  NASA’s statement to today said only that NASA’s Launch Services Program would choose a launch provider.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of all of this is that less than 5 years from its deadline, the Artemis program’s architecture is still so much in flux.  Gateway is essential, then it’s not, now it’s back.

These changing plans, with less than 5 years to meet the Trump Administration directive, are creating concerns in Congress.  The day after NASA announced the HLS awards, the chairwomen of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its space subcommittee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), expressed disappointment that, among other things, NASA has not given Congress a “transparent architecture and technical and cost assessment” for the Artemis program despite repeated requests.

Johnson, Horn and others in the House and Senate closely involved in NASA’s activities are broadly supportive of human exploration of the Moon and Mars, but not all agree with accelerating the lunar deadline to 2024.  One worry is the cost.  NASA is requesting $25.3 billion in FY2021, a 12 percent increase over current spending.  Overall, it needs an additional $35 billion over the next five years above its previous estimates, part of a total of $71 billion it says will be spent on Artemis from FY2021-2025.  Others are more excited about sending people to Mars than the Moon and do not want lunar exploration to delay that goal. President Trump is among them and NASA is careful to describe Artemis as a steppingstone to Mars.

Selling a multi-year, multi-billion Moon/Mars program while the country is spending trillions to stabilize the economy amidst the coronavirus pandemic is a challenge. Bridenstine is very optimistic, though. He believes government spending will be essential to keeping the economy afloat in these unprecedented times and his interactions with members of Congress (of which he was one himself before moving to NASA) indicate no threat.  During the HLS teleconference last week he said:  “We’re not going to be the solution to balancing the budget. … I don’t think we’re in any jeopardy.”

Still, a stable architecture, which is needed to formulate a credible budget estimate, might help convince policymakers that 2024 is achievable.

Loverro and other NASA officials are scheduled to brief the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee next week,  a meeting that has been delayed twice since early March. Hopefully that executable architecture will emerge.

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