Political Pressure Grows on NASA’s Lunar Program

Political Pressure Grows on NASA’s Lunar Program

Vice President Mike Pence will chair a meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Alabama, on Tuesday.  Huntsville is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which is managing development of NASA’s new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), to return astronauts to the lunar surface.  The meeting comes in the wake of reports of new SLS schedule delays.  Pence is expected to offer “guidance” on the need to meet commitments and add a “sense of urgency” to the effort.  While some are speculating that Pence may make a major announcement to accelerate the lunar landing plans, the FY2020 budget request shows no signs of it.  In fact, it would defer SLS upgrades purportedly needed to put humans back on the Moon.

Speaking at the American Astronautical Society (AAS) Goddard Memorial Symposium on March 21, Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace offered a preview of the meeting, stressing that the “Vice President cares intensely about what we do in space.”

Two expert panels will offer their views on the human spaceflight program. The first, composed of former astronauts Sandy Magnus and Eileen Collins, and Les Lyles, chairman of the NASA Advisory Council, will discuss “getting ready to fly again” with the impending resumption of  crew launches to low Earth orbit (LEO) on American rockets from American soil.  The second features Dan Dumbacher from AIAA, Jack Burns from CU Boulder, and Wanda Sigur, Lockheed Martin, retired, talking about going beyond LEO and “getting ready to explore again.”

Scott Pace, Executive Secretary, White House National Space Council. Credit: George Washington University website.

Human spaceflight was the topic of President Trump’s first Space Policy Directive, SPD-1, signed in December 2017.  It restored the goal of putting U.S. astronauts back on the lunar surface, which was eschewed by the Obama Administration in favor of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.   The Obama plan envisioned a Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit to serve as a transfer station for astronauts traveling between the Earth and Mars, but not trips down to the surface.

The Trump Administration is retaining the Gateway concept, if not the “Deep Space” designation, but tasking it to serve as a transfer point also for crews to land on the Moon.  NASA’s current plan is to accomplish that in 2028.  Astronauts would travel to the Gateway in an Orion capsule launched by SLS and transfer to landers and transfer vehicles to get to and from the surface.  NASA characterizes this as a reusable, sustainable architecture rather than the Apollo model where each spacecraft was used only once.

That plan has been subject to strong criticism as taking far too long, however.  This year is the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon, Apollo 11, which took only 8 years from its announcement by President John F. Kennedy in May 1961.  Space flight was very new at the time, yet NASA was able to develop the rockets and spacecraft to safely execute Apollo 11 and five other successful lunar landings (Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17) by the end of 1972.

At a meeting of the Space Council’s outside advisers, the Users’ Advisory Group (UAG), last November, three former astronauts and a former NASA Administrator panned the plan.  Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin criticized the Gateway concept as unnecessary, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt complained that NASA’s plan had “no sense of urgency,” and former space shuttle commander Eileen Collins argued “we can do it sooner” and ensure China does not get there before Americans return.  Mike Griffin, who headed NASA from 2005-2009, said 2028 was “so late to need as to not be worthy to be on the table.”  He oversaw President George W. Bush’s Constellation program that intended to return humans to the Moon by 2020, but was terminated by Obama because it was too costly.

Their protests did not seem to have an immediate effect, but current NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently made clear that he wants NASA to at least meet its promise to launch Orion on its first  mission around the Moon  — Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) — next year and demonstrate progress.  EM-1 is an uncrewed Orion test flight.  EM-2 is a flight test with a crew in 2022.

Bridenstine repeatedly talks about the need to return to the Moon differently from the Apollo program — sustainably, with reusable rockets and spacecraft.  SLS is not reusable, but he calls it a “critical capability” nonetheless. In a marked change from previous plans, however, the FY2020 budget request indicates that SLS no longer is envisioned for launching elements of the Gateway and will only be used for crews, which means many fewer flights and thus a higher cost per flight.

On top of that, in a bombshell announcement while testifying to the Senate Commerce Committee on March 13, Bridenstine revealed that NASA is studying the use of two commercial rockets instead of SLS for EM-1.  It was surprising not only because of the technical challenges involved, but because SLS has unwavering support from Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and holds great sway over NASA’s budget.

At the AAS meeting, Pace explained that Bridenstine’s statement was not a “slam” on SLS, but reflects that NASA and the White House are “deadly serious” about keeping schedule commitments. He said many alternatives are being considered, including to the “Green Run” test at Stennis Space Center of the SLS core stage with all four of its RS-25 engines firing.

“This emphasis on schedule is a welcome change,” Pace said.  “We’re not racing the Soviet Union, but we are racing a sense of complacency.”

Congress directed NASA to build SLS in the 2010 NASA authorization act after Obama cancelled an earlier rocket, Ares, being built for the Constellation program.  The SLS RS-25 engines are left over from the space shuttle program, and its strap-on solid rocket boosters are enhancements of the type used for the shuttle.  The program passed its confirmation review in 2014, with EM-1 scheduled for November 2018.  That slipped to December 2019, and now is slipping further.  Boeing is the SLS prime contractor.

SLS is controversial because companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing or planning to develop their own large rockets, raising the question of why the government needs to spend tax dollars to build SLS instead of buying services from those companies.  SLS advocates insist that the government must ensure it has the capabilities it needs and not rely on businesses that could abruptly change or cancel their plans.

What is clear now is that the White House and NASA are exasperated with the program as it is today.

What “guidance” Pence will offer on Tuesday remains to be seen.

The FY2020 budget request just submitted to Congress envisions humans back on the lunar surface in 2028. No funds are requested to accelerate that schedule.  In fact, it proposes deferring upgrades to SLS purportedly needed for that task in order to focus on EM-1 and EM-2.

NASA’s lunar exploration timeline as presented in its FY2020 budget request. Source: NASA

At a budget briefing on March 11, NASA Deputy Chief Financial Officer Andrew Hunter said that a prime objective of the budget request is to launch EM-1 and EM-2 “as fast as technically possible,” but it is “something that more money won’t accelerate… we just need a little more time.”

The request for SLS is $1.775 billion, down from its current level of $2.150 billion. Overall, the Trump Administration is requesting $21.019 billion for NASA, a $481 million cut to NASA’s current funding of $21.500 billion.

Pace did not suggest a budget increase either.  He called on NASA to “take full advantage of the policy window that’s open for us,” as well as commercial and international partnerships, non-traditional procurement methods, and other avenues to “lower cost and speed execution.”  What is needed is “timely demonstrations as well as piles of documentation to determine flight readiness” and sticking to the plan, not just creating capabilities that are “open ended and have open ended timetables.”

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