NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will be in charge of developing landers to put humans back on the Moon despite objections from key members of Congress who wanted it assigned to Johnson Space Center (JSC) instead.  Marshall is in Alabama; JSC is in Texas. The clash is largely between politicians from those two states who want the jobs and prestige for their constituents.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine chose Marshall to manage the overall program plus two of the three vehicles needed for landing.  JSC will manage acquisition of the third vehicle.  Bridenstine sees it as a win for both Centers.

Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, and Rep. Brian Babin, all Texas Republicans, wrote a letter to Bridenstine yesterday asking him to reconsider the decision and delay today’s announcement. They insist the most cost effective approach is to have one Center manage all of it and that Center should be JSC, “ground zero for human exploration.”

The only effect the letter seems to have had is that Babin did not attend the event today.  He had been scheduled to speak.  In a statement afterwards, he said he was “disappointed” JSC was not chosen because “the knowledge base and skill set for this task unquestionably resides” there.

The Trump Administration wants to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024.  The program is named Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.  Crews will be launched on an Orion spacecraft atop NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) to a small space station, Gateway, in lunar orbit, where the landers will be docked. Notionally each lander will consist of a transfer vehicle to take the crew from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit, then a descent vehicle to take them to the surface, and an ascent vehicle to return them to Gateway.

Jody Singer, Director, Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA

Marshall will oversee development of the transfer and descent vehicles and the overall program.  JSC will manage the ascent vehicle.  All are being procured through public-private partnerships with yet-to-selected companies, however, and the companies will determine the final design, not NASA.  NASA will purchase services from the companies rather than owing the vehicles as it did during Apollo.  This is the same procurement approach as the ongoing commercial crew program.

Bridenstine said 363 NASA jobs are involved in the program of which 140 will be at Marshall, 87 at JSC, and the remainder at other NASA Centers. He understands the concerns of Cruz, Cornyn and Babin, but argued that NASA is different from the 1960s when a single NASA center, JSC, managed the lander for the Apollo program.  Today all the Centers share programs and what is really required is the best minds from NASA and industry to make Artemis a reality.  He said the decision to put Marshall in charge was “not made lightly.” It was based on past Marshall experience in designing a robotic lunar lander (Resource Prospector, which was cancelled) and its expertise in propulsion that is key to the transfer and descent vehicles. JSC is expert in human space systems and thus will manage the ascent stage that will take crews back to Gateway.

The ascent stage also requires propulsion, though, and the crew will be aboard the entire vehicle on the way down, so the explanation does not really answer the question of how the decision was made.

Right now, Marshall manages SLS, while JSC manages Orion and Gateway.  The decision to award Marshall management of the landers is viewed by many as a political decision more than anything.  The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Richard Shelby (R), is from Alabama. The top Republican on the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, is Alabama’s Robert Aderholt (R).

Their support is crucial to get NASA the money it needs.  The House Appropriations Committee, in fact, did not include any of the $1.6 billion NASA requested for Artemis for FY2020 in its version of the CJS appropriations bill.  The chairman of the CJS subcommittee, Rep. José Serrano (D-NY) recently said he supports sending astronauts to the Moon, but not urgently by 2024 (NASA had been planning for 2028).  NASA is hoping Shelby will put the $1.6 billion in the Senate version and convince the House to include it in the final bill.

Aderholt spoke at the event today and promised to get NASA the necessary resources.  Shelby tweeted his approval.

Two other House Republicans also were there: Rep. Mo Brooks, who represents Marshall, and Rep. Scott DesJarlais from a neighboring district in Tennessee.

Brooks pointed out that the total cost for Artemis will be “somewhere in the neighborhood of $25-30 billion” and that is on top of what NASA already was planning to spend on its other programs.  He hopes Congress will recognize the advancements that will derive from that investment.

Bridenstine estimated in June that Artemis will cost $20-30 billion through 2024, but more recently suggested it could be less than $20 billion depending on the agreements with the companies. He told a Senate committee in July, however, that NASA will not be able to tell Congress how much it will cost until the FY2021 budget request is submitted next February.

Lisa Watson-Morgan, Program Manager, NASA Human Landing System, Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA

During a brief Q&A session, reporters honed in the Cruz/Cornyn/Babin letter and why Babin was not there. To the latter question, Bridenstine replied “I honestly don’t know.” Bridenstine is a former member of Congress who served on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee with Babin, who chaired the space subcommittee when Republicans controlled the House and is now its Ranking Member.

From Bridenstine’s point of view, Marshall and JSC both are winners today.  “It’s not us against them. When we go to the Moon there will be plenty of work for Johnson.”

He introduced Lisa Watson-Morgan who will be the program manager for the landers.  She is a native of Huntsville and a 30-year Marshall veteran.  She cited Marshall’s long history of working collaboratively with other NASA centers and “we intend to keep doing that. ” She called this industry-led procurement approach “exciting” because it will bring “their speed and our experience” together to meet the 2024 goal.

Watson-Morgan has a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, a master’s in industrial and systems engineering, and a doctorate in engineering management all from the University of Alabama-Huntsville.  She has served as manager of Marshall’s Chief Engineer’s Office, director of the Spacecraft and Vehicle Systems Department, associate director of operations for the Engineering Directorate, and most recently as deputy director of the Engineering Directorate.

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