NASA Awaiting Congressional Approval for Moon to Mars Program Office

NASA Awaiting Congressional Approval for Moon to Mars Program Office

NASA is waiting for Congress to approve its plan for a Moon to Mars Program Office to comply with the 2022 NASA Authorization Act. Congress supports NASA’s current focus on returning astronauts to the Moon, but as a steppingstone to Mars, not the end goal, and required NASA to establish an organizational structure that will help ensure NASA keeps the long term goal top of mind.

NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Jim Free speaks to the Space Transportation Association, Feb. 7, 2023.

Section 10811 goes on at length (four and a half pages) specifying details of the Moon to Mars Program Office that NASA is directed to create, and the duties of the Moon to Mars Program Director. The 2022 NASA Authorization Act is part of the CHIPS and Science Act (P.L. 117-167).

Speaking to the Space Transportation Association on Capitol Hill today, Jim Free said the agency completed the plan, cleared it through the White House Office of Management and Budget, and briefed congressional staff, but must wait for official congressional approval before implementing it.

Free is NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) that oversees the Artemis campaign to return astronauts to the Moon as part of a Moon to Mars strategy.

Artemis is not administered as a “program.” It consists of elements like the Space Launch System, Orion crew spacecraft, Exploration Ground Systems, Gateway lunar space station, Human Landing Systems, and spacesuits, with various officials in charge of different parts. Congress wants a more traditional structure with a single individual who has responsibility and accountability for the outcome and explicitly includes Mars.

Free said today he essentially has been the de facto Moon to Mars program manager, but after the new plan is approved it will be someone else. Pursuant to the law, the Program Office will be part of ESDMD and report to the ESDMD Associate Administrator, but the Program Director is to be appointed by the NASA Administrator.

This will be the second reorganization in 18 months. In September 2021, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson split the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into two: Free’s ESDMD, and the Space Operations Mission Directorate headed by Kathy Lueders.

Free wants his team focused on the mission, not organizational changes, and hopes to get everything settled “within the next couple of months.” “We hope to hear back very soon.”

The 118th Congress is still getting organized.  Three of the four committees that oversee and fund NASA will hold their organizational meetings this week:  the House Appropriations Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee tomorrow, and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Thursday. The members of the Senate Appropriations Committee were named last week, but it has not met.

The mission Free wants his team to focus on right now is getting Artemis II ready for flight at the end of 2024.

Free and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Director Jody Singer jointly briefed STA on the recently concluded Artemis I mission, an uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion. Artemis II is the next step, carrying a crew of four around the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program. “I don’t want anyone to get distracted from flying humans safely” because of the reorganization, Free emphasized.

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Director Jody Singer speaks to the Space Transportation Association, Feb 7, 2023.

Singer and Free were exuberant about Artemis I, which successfully ended its 25-day mission in December. Free said SLS’s accuracy was “.3 percent in velocity and orbital parameters.”

Singer’s MSFC in Huntsville, Alabama managed development and testing of the SLS. The SLS core stage was built by Boeing at MSFC’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana.

“[SLS] program manager John Honeycutt likes to say we had an A++++++ mission. And that really is fantastic when you think about the first launch. … Yes, it took some practice to get us there, but on the third launch [attempt], it was beautiful. … And I tell you, it just takes your breath away when you think about everything that had to come together to make it happen. … You know, launch would not have been possible without the dedication of the team. … We survived a lot. … There was COVID, which we all endured. There were supplier issues. We lost critical team members, unfortunately. … It really did take a team effort.” — Jody Singer

The core stage for Artemis II is being built right now and will be ready to be shipped to Kennedy Space Center this summer, Singer said. “We’re seeing that our production time on the core stage at the Michoud Assembly Facility right now is … a 50 percent improvement” and other SLS elements like Northrop Grumman’s Solid Rocket Boosters are making similar progress.

The Artemis campaign is for sustainable exploration and utilization of the Moon by NASA and its international and commercial partners, but also is part of a longer term plan for human exploration of Mars and beyond.

NASA developed a set of 63 Moon to Mars objectives, a “blueprint for shaping exploration throughout the solar system.” Free just completed a week-long Architecture Concept Review to begin developing an evolvable plan to achieve those objectives. He wants to get the group — which includes all of NASA’s Center Directors, Mission Directorates, and technical authorities — together again later this month before finalizing a report to NASA’s Executive Council in mid-March. NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy will share the results with the public at the Space Symposium in April if all goes according to plan.

Evolvable is the key. The Architecture Concept Review is not a one-time meeting, but an annual event that will take place each November in time to feed into the agency’s budget process. Free said the timing “is the most important thing, it’s linked to the budget, it’s no longer separate.”

Indeed, getting the money needed for human exploration of the solar system will be a challenge even with bipartisan support in Congress considering the current push to reduce federal spending and the deficit.

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