Senators Press NASA on Green Run Test, Artemis Cost Estimate

Senators Press NASA on Green Run Test, Artemis Cost Estimate

During a hearing on NASA’s Moon/Mars plans today, Senators pressed NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine on whether or not the Space Launch System (SLS) will undergo a Green Run test and the need for Congress to have a cost estimate for the entire Artemis program, not just the first year. Bridenstine demurred on both questions while warning that any delay in receiving the funds requested for FY2020 would be “devastating” to the program.

The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which authorizes NASA’s activities, added their voices to those who are urging NASA to conduct a full-up Green Run test of the SLS before the first launch — Artemis 1.  That will be an uncrewed test flight of SLS with its Orion crew spacecraft.

During the Green Run test, all four RS-25 engines will be integrated into the SLS core stage, mounted on an enormous test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center, and fired for the full 8 minutes that will be needed to get into space.  NASA is considering skipping the test entirely and substituting a much shorter test on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center closer to launch or performing an abbreviated test at Stennis.

L-R: Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman, and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), ranking member, of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Credit: committee website.

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) said he was sure NASA would maintain its commitment to safety and it should include “the completion of a full Green Run test” at Stennis, which is in his state.  Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said “I definitely believe in  system testing” based on lessons learned from “Columbia and other things,” referring to the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident that killed its seven-person crew.

Cantwell also introduced into the record a statement by Patricia Sanders, chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP). The panel was created by law after the 1967 Apollo fire and reports both to NASA and Congress.  Twice already this year ASAP has strongly urged NASA to keep the Green Run test.  Sanders reiterated in her statement that it is one of the “critical data sets” needed to ensure a safe Artemis-2 mission, the first flight of SLS and Orion with a crew.

Bridenstine replied that a Green Run test is in the baseline program, but declined to make any commitment to what it will involve.  Last week, he dismissed the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, Bill Gerstenmaier, and his deputy in charge of SLS and Orion, Bill Hill.  The next day he opened a job search to find their successors.  He will wait until the new team is on board before making decisions.

“Before we make commitments on the scope of the Green Run, before we make commitments on timelines, we want to make sure that the new team is in place [and] that they have buy-in to realistic cost and schedule so that ultimately it is their cost and schedule and they can be held accountable to it.” — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

Repeated schedule slips have plagued the SLS program for years.  NASA’s formal commitment to Congress was that the first launch would take place in November 2018.  That slipped to a time period between December 2019 and June 2020. Then, this spring, SLS prime contractor Boeing told NASA it would slip to 2021, creating much consternation in NASA and the White House.  Instead of accepting the delay, the White House decided to accelerate by four years, to 2024, NASA’s plans to put astronauts back on the Moon.  Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the White House National Space Council, announced the new plan on March 26, warning that “if our current contractor can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find one that will.”  He added that if NASA is not up to the task, the agency will have to change, not the goal.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testifying to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, July 17, 2019. Screengrab.

Despite the rhetoric, however, according to Bridenstine’s testimony today, 2021 is now the baseline for Artemis-1.  Artemis-2, which had been expected in 2022, now will be in “2022, 2023.”  Artemis-3, the flight that will take astronauts to the lunar surface via a Gateway in lunar orbit, is still planned for 2024, the last year of a second Trump term if he is reelected.

It is an ambitious schedule and NASA is trying to convince Congress to provide the money to do that. One difficulty is that the Administration has not told Congress how much it will cost.  Wicker, Cantwell and committee member Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who also chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, pressed Bridenstine on when they will get those numbers.

“We need to know what it will cost not just this year, but over the life of the project,” Moran asserted.  NASA submitted a budget amendment for FY2020 of $1.6 billion, but has not said how much Artemis will cost through 2024.  Bridenstine said last month he expects it to be $20-30 billion on top what NASA was planning for those years, or $4-6 billion more per year.  It is a significant amount of money and NASA’s authorizers and appropriators in Congress are anxious to know the details.

Bridenstine declined to provide any numbers because there are “lots of variables at play, a lot of knobs to turn.” For example, how much commercial companies will be investing of their own money in lunar landers and how many are needed.

“Some commercial companies want to invest as much as 30%, maybe even more, into the project.  That helps us if they get selected for the project. If they don’t get selected for the project, it doesn’t help us. .. Depending on how much money these companies invest changes the number [NASA needs]. … Do we want to have just one lander?  Do we want to have three landers?  In my view, we should have three commercial landers that are receiving support from commercial industry, and then, as time goes on, down-select to two and that keeps them all very, very motivated to be one of those two down-selected companies. That mitigates risk because now if something goes wrong with one, the others go forward and we can stay on schedule.” — Jim Bridenstine

That is similar to how the commercial crew program was crafted.  So far both companies that were down-selected, SpaceX and Boeing, are experiencing delays.

Moran maintained that he needs a 5-year plan for Artemis, though not for NASA’s other programs, now as Congress tries to reach a budget deal and avoid a Continuing Resolution (CR) for all or part of FY2020.  He, Wicker and Bridenstine agreed a CR would be “devastating” to Artemis since it would hold NASA to its current (FY2019) funding and programs.  Agencies cannot begin new programs — like building lunar landers or spacesuits — under a CR.  With time so short, any delay in getting those under contract would imperil the 2024 goal.

Bridenstine stood firm.  Congress will get the detailed cost estimate when the FY2021 budget request is submitted in February 2020.

These near-term issues became the focus of the hearing, although the intent was to look more broadly at the Trump Administration’s vision for the future of human space exploration.  Trump has made clear he is more interested in sending humans to Mars than the Moon.

Bridenstine did have a chance to say that as the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first landing on the Moon, the question is what “stunning achievement” will be commemorated 50 years from now?

“I tell you what I believe it is. It’s finding life on another world, and in the last year significant discoveries have been made that indicate life very well could exist on Mars.”

He also reiterated what he said during a media teleconference on Monday — he is not giving up on the possibility of getting humans on Mars by 2033.  He has a small team looking at ways to do that.


Note: This article was updated with the last paragraph, which was inadvertently omitted from the original post.

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