NASA: Artemis on Track for 2024

NASA: Artemis on Track for 2024

NASA officials provided an update on the Artemis program today indicating that it is on track to achieve the goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 and going to Mars thereafter. When people will land on Mars is dependent on policy and national priorities that will be determined by others, not NASA, according to the head of the Mars Architecture team at Johnson Space Center (JSC).

The panel discussion was part of the American Astronautical Society’s (AAS’s) annual Wernher von Braun symposium in Huntsville, AL.  Marshall Smith, Director of Human Lunar Exploration Programs at NASA HQ, showed this slide depicting the current plan for the first phase of the Artemis program.

Source: NASA

Crews will be launched aboard Orion spacecraft on the Space Launch System (SLS) to a small space station, Gateway, in lunar orbit. Once there, they will transfer to landers to take them down to the surface and back.  Orion will return them to Earth.

NASA was planning to put humans on the lunar surface by 2028, but on March 26 the Trump Administration accelerated that to 2024.  It later named the program Artemis, after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, and requested an additional $1.6 billion for FY2020. Congress is still debating that request.  The Administration has not told Congress how much the entire Artemis program will cost, but estimates are $20-30 billion over the next 5 years on top of what NASA was planning to request for its other activities.

The Gateway was the component of the program most affected by the acceleration. Originally envisioned as an international multi-modular space station accommodating both crews and scientific research, albeit much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS), it has been significantly downsized to meet the 2024 deadline. NASA and its ISS partners continue to make plans to evolve the Gateway to become more like the original plan, but, for now, speed is of the essence.

The 2024 version of Gateway will consist only of a Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and a Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), sometimes referred to as a mini-habitation module or mini-hab. Both are being procured as public-private partnerships, not through traditional cost-plus contracts.

JSC Gateway Program Manager Dan Hartman said the PPE, being built by Maxar Technologies, is on track for launch in 2022.  It is leveraging an existing spacecraft design for communications satellites, but with much larger solar panels to provide 60 kilowatts of power, almost half of what is generated by the ISS solar arrays.  NASA sole-sourced the HALO contract to Northrop Grumman to expand its Cygnus spacecraft, used to send cargo to the ISS, by adding more interior volume and docking ports, for a total of four.  It will be launched in 2023 on a commercial rocket, not SLS, and dock autonomously with the PPE in lunar orbit.

Source: NASA.  The larger vehicle to the right of HALO is a conceptual lunar lander.

Orion and the landers will be parked at those ports.  Lisa Watson-Morgan at Marshall Space Flight Center recently was assigned as program manager for the “Human Landing System” (HLS).  It also will be procured as a public-private partnership and she said more than one company will be selected, similar to the commercial crew program where Boeing and SpaceX both are contractors.  Whatever companies are chosen will decide on the design based on NASA’s requirements and they will own the landers, not NASA. NASA will pay them for services as it does with commercial crew.  A notional lander is shown in the above graphic as the large vehicle to the right of HALO.

The landers will take the crews to the surface where they will need spacesuits to conduct extravehicular activities (EVAs).  The duration of their stay has not been decided, but Watson-Morgan said 4-6 days is the current thinking.

Concern about whether NASA will have the spacesuits it needs for both men and women has been a hot topic for months. Lindsay Aitchison, EVA Strategy Lead for Advanced Exploration Systems at NASA HQ, reassured the audience that NASA has been working on spacesuit designs for a decade and they will be ready in time.  The design will be evolvable for use at other destinations, like Mars.

Michelle Rucker, Mars Architecture lead at JSC, gave a brief update on that planning.  President Trump has made it clear it is Mars, not the Moon, that beckons to him. He has said several times, including at an August 15 campaign rally in New Hampshire, that astronauts will plant the American flag on Mars “someday soon.”

Asked when that will happen, Rucker demurred, saying the 2030s have long been NASA’s goal, but it “ultimately depends on what the policy and national priorities are.  We just implement policy, we don’t make it.”  Her theme was that Mars is difficult if you have to start from scratch, but NASA is not starting from scratch since the systems being built for Artemis can also be used for Mars.  “I call Gateway my prototype Deep Space Transport.”

Indeed, the Obama Administration’s human exploration plan bypassed lunar landings and focused on getting to Mars by the 2030s.  NASA’s plan at the time was to put a Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit as a transfer point to a Deep Space Transport to get to and from Mars. The Trump Administration reinstated lunar landings and the Deep Space Gateway became just the Gateway, but the concept of how to get to Mars remains the same.

The message today was that the Artemis program is proceeding apace.

That’s despite uncertainty about whether Congress will provide the requisite funding or who will be in charge of human exploration at NASA HQ.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine dismissed Bill Gerstenmaier as the Associate Administrator (AA) for Human Exploration and Operations on July 10 and has not yet chosen a replacement.  Former astronaut Ken Bowersox is the Acting AA.  He had returned to NASA to serve as Gerstenmaier’s Deputy just a few months earlier.

With the clock ticking on the 2024 goal, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is holding a hearing next week to get its own update on these programs.

Congress continues to work on FY2020 appropriations, with the beginning of the fiscal year just three weeks away.  The House-passed version of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA did not include the additional $1.6 billion and CJS chairman José Serrano (D-NY) has expressed skepticism about accelerating the program even though he supports the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon.  The Senate Appropriations Committee just began marking up its FY2020 appropriations bills yesterday, but not the CJS bill.  Its markup schedule has been disrupted over a dispute that arose yesterday on the Labor-HHS bill, so it is impossible to say when the committee or the Senate as a whole will act on NASA’s funding.  A Continuing Resolution (CR) appears more and more likely, which could significantly impact how quickly NASA can move forward with Artemis. CRs hold agencies to their current spending levels and do not permit new programs to begin unless an exception (“anomaly”) is granted.

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