NASA’s Moon Plan Panned by Space Council Advisers

NASA’s Moon Plan Panned by Space Council Advisers

NASA’s plan for returning to the Moon met with opposition today at a meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group (UAG).  Not only members of the UAG, but former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who was there as a guest speaker on other topics, offered his personal view that NASA is moving too slowly and the lunar orbiting Gateway is an unnecessary first step.  The pace of the program is driven in part by NASA’s budget and Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed concern about the impact of Rep. John Culberson’s (R-TX) imminent departure from Congress.  A staunch NASA supporter who chairs a key appropriations panel, Culberson lost his reelection bid.

The UAG advises the National Space Council, which is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.  This was its second meeting.  The Space Council and the UAG cover the full range of U.S. civil, commercial, and national security space activities, but much of the discussion today focused on NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon and go on to Mars.

Bridenstine and NASA Associate Administrator for Policy and Strategy Tom Cremins updated the UAG on NASA’s plans.  Cremins presented a graphic laying out a “notional” timeline that shows humans landing on the lunar surface in 2028, 10 years from now.

Source: NASA

NASA is planning its program on the assumption that its budget will grow with inflation, not get an infusion of new money.  Cremins said the agency thinks that will be enough in tandem with “smart partnering” with other countries and the private sector.

In the first part of the 2020s, NASA plans to launch a series of very small and later mid-sized robotic landers and rovers as public-private partnerships, while at the same time building a small space station, currently called the Gateway, in lunar orbit.  The Gateway is much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) and would not be permanently occupied.  Crews would be aboard only three months a year and eventually the Gateway would be a transit point for humans travelling between Earth and the lunar surface or Mars.  NASA is soliciting input from the science and engineering communities as to how it could be utilized for experiments and technology demonstrations as well.

A key feature from NASA’s standpoint is that it will have a 50-kilowatt solar-electric Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) that allows its orbit to be changed to support operations in many locations on the lunar surface, including the far side.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Bridenstine focused on that today, asserting that if the Gateway was just going to be a space station in lunar orbit, he does not want it.  The value to him is the ability to change orbits to support “more landers and more rovers on more places on the Moon than ever before.” Among other things that will enable any interested country to have its own lunar spacecraft that could be supported by the Gateway.  He views that as key to U.S. leadership in space.  He also champions the Gateway as a reusable “command module” that is essential to a sustainable exploration program where humans can go back and forth to the Moon “in perpetuity” rather than ending after a few missions as happened with the Apollo program.

He said the PPE would be launched in 2021 and the habitation module in 2023.  As Cremins’s chart shows, however, astronauts would not return to the lunar surface until 2028.

Asked if NASA has the money to accomplish the plan, Bridenstine made no secret that he is worried about the future.  “NASA has benefited greatly from one Congressman in particular, John Culberson, and he will not be back in the next Congress and that is of concern to me personally.”  On top of that, President Trump has directed all federal agencies to develop budgets for FY2020 that are 5 percent less than current spending.  Under that scenario, “no, we’re not going to have what we need to go to the Moon … to put boots on the Moon.”  He rejected the idea of “cannibalizing” other parts of NASA to pay for it.

“We’re OK for now.  I’m sounding a warning.”

Despite that warning, several UAG members criticized the plan because it takes so long to get humans back on the surface and asked if NASA will consider alternatives.

Lockheed Martin’s crewed lunar lander concept.  Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin President Marillyn Hewson called for landing humans by 2024 or 2025 using capabilities already under development, a concept she called “early Gateway.”  Bridenstine said he was all for accelerating the plan as long as it does not have budgetary consequences and asked for more information.  Lockheed Martin is proposing a four-person, reusable human lunar lander concept that it describes as being enabled by the Gateway, but Hewson did not discuss whether that is part of her “early Gateway” concept.

Eileen Collins, a former space shuttle commander, said 2028 “is so far off, we can do it sooner” and China “could do it before us.”  Cremins replied that “our projection is 2030” for when China might be able to send humans to the Moon.  He added NASA is limited both by resources and by development cycles.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt said the plan comes across as having “no sense of urgency” and he thinks it should. Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin said he was “quite opposed” to the Gateway for a variety of reasons.

Mike Griffin is currently the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, but from 2005-2009 he was NASA Administrator developing and implementing President George W. Bush’s Constellation program to return humans to the Moon by 2020.  During the George H.W. Bush Administration he directed NASA’s Space Exploration Initiative that had a similar goal.  Thus, although he was at the UAG meeting to talk about national security space issues, not lunar exploration, he was asked his opinion of the NASA plan.

Stressing that these are his private views, he said 2028 “is so late to need as to not be worthy to be on the table.”  From a systems engineering standpoint, building the Gateway before humans are on the surface is a “stupid architecture” because it will be needed only as a depot for propellant once it is being manufactured on the surface.

He also thinks China could put humans on the Moon in 6-8 years, but that does not mean it will.  “They never seem to be in a rush” and “play the long game.”  If they did get to the Moon before U.S. astronauts return, he believes it would have significant geopolitical consequences because non-aligned countries want to associate with whoever is the leader in the world.  Feats like landing on the Moon is a sign of leadership and for that reason alone he believes we need to do it as soon as possible.

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