NASA Advisors Worry Agency is Spinning Its Wheels on Artemis

NASA Advisors Worry Agency is Spinning Its Wheels on Artemis

A much anticipated meeting of a NASA committee that advises the agency on its human spaceflight program today left many questions about how the agency is moving forward to meet the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024.  A credible architecture for the Artemis program still seems elusive with only four-and-a-half years to go.

NASA’s human spaceflight head, Doug Loverro, and his team briefed the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee (NAC/HEO) on the first day of a two-day meeting that was rescheduled twice.  The briefings covered more than the Artemis program, but that clearly was foremost on everyone’s minds.

Loverro joined the agency just 5 months ago, but NASA has been working on returning humans to the Moon for quite some time.  Earlier attempts date back to 1989, but President Trump kicked off the most recent effort in December 2017 when he signed Space Policy Directive-1, restoring the goal of landing on the Moon to NASA’s exploration plans.

A lot of work was done with the idea of landing on the Moon in 2028, but on March 26, 2019, Vice President Pence directed NASA to accelerate the schedule by four years so the landing would take place in 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency if he wins reelection in November.  NASA has been assiduously revising its plan to achieve that goal — to get there “fast” — while not abandoning the longer term goal of getting there “sustainably” to support long term lunar exploration and utilization as steps towards someday sending people to Mars.

At the center of the debate is a small space station, Gateway, that will be placed in lunar orbit.  Until three months ago, it was a sine qua non of the entire architecture, a transfer point for crews traveling from the Earth to the lunar surface.  Then, in March, Loverro announced it no longer was mandatory.  In April, NASA announced the winners of 10-month contracts to develop concepts for Human Landing Systems (HLS), none of which require the Gateway.  One week later, Loverro announced that Gateway was back in the plan.  Instead of launching the first two pieces separately and docking in lunar orbit, they will be integrated together and launched jointly in 2023.

It was hoped the briefings to NAC/HEO today would clarify where the Gateway fits and provide a clear, achievable plan for moving forward to the 2024 goal. While two more Artemis-related briefings are planned for tomorrow, at this point committee members seemed unsatisfied.

Regarding the Gateway, Loverro said that although it will be launched in 2023, it will not be used for the 2024 landing. He said that launching the two pieces together will save a lot of money and reduce technical risk, but did not explain the advantage of launching it long before it is needed.

Committee member Nancy Ann Budden, Director for Special Operations Technology at DOD, worries that Gateway is starting to look like”an afterthought” rather than an essential piece of the program and someone may begin asking why it is needed at all.

Some of the briefings were about trade studies on topics such as what is the best orbit for Artemis missions, even though that has been extensively studied in the past. Committee members expressed exasperation that NASA is still debating such issues. Former astronaut Jim Voss said “I think we’re spinning our wheels a bit, doing trade studies we’ve done a hundred times” and “my overall impression is that we’re sort of marking time right now.”

Others felt the HLS systems are too complex.  Bob Sieck, a former NASA launch director, cautioned that engineers will make systems as complex as they can because that’s what engineers do, but NASA needs to focus on requirements.  “I hope we’re not making this more difficult than it needs to be.”  Tommy Holloway, a former space shuttle and space station program manager, agreed.  He complimented NASA on the decision to combine the two Gateway segments before launch and urged more thinking like that.  He commented that it seems to him that some of those working on the program still think the schedule is 2028, not 2024.

Committee chairman Wayne Hale, a former space shuttle flight director and program manager, is concerned about the schedule for a different reason — safety.  He said the two space shuttle tragedies were caused by hurried schedules.  What he feels is missing is a schedule that begins at the end of 2024 and works backwards to see what is needed when and if the resources are there to meet it.

The meeting continues tomorrow.  One briefing is on the status of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs that will take the crews to lunar orbit.  Another is on a recent plan NASA published on sustained lunar exploration.  It may be that at the end of the day it will be clearer as to how all the pieces fit together to meet the 2024 goal, and why the Gateway will be launched in 2023 even though it will not be used until some time after 2024, but it was not obvious today.

Note: this article has been updated.

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