Skepticism Abounds on Moon-by-2024 Goal at House Hearing

Skepticism Abounds on Moon-by-2024 Goal at House Hearing

NASA’s own witness at today’s House hearing was skeptical about getting humans back on the Moon by 2024 as directed by the Trump Administration. The acting head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, former astronaut Ken Bowersox, said he wouldn’t bet his child’s birthday present on it, but the agency will try as hard as it can to meet that goal. A critical factor is getting the $1.6 billion in extra funding NASA requested this summer, and getting it now. If NASA is put into a Continuing Resolution (CR) that holds the agency at its current spending level, reaching that goal will be “much, much harder.”  The House is about to do just that, however, with a vote on a CR expected tomorrow.

The hearing before the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee was about NASA’s human exploration plans for the Moon and Mars and especially when the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft will be ready for their first launch, Artemis-1.

L-R: Ken Bowersox, NASA; Cristina Chaplain, GAO; Doug Cooke, Cooke Concepts and Solutions. Testifying to House Science, Space & Technology Committee, September 18, 2019

Bowersox punted on that question, though, declining to give a date.  The earliest is the end of next year, he said, but many factors are in play.  While the agency has a “manage to” schedule that reflects a best case scenario, technical issues or weather delays as the SLS goes through testing at Stennis Space Center and processing at Kennedy Space Center are among the schedule risks.

In 2014, NASA committed to first launch in November 2018.  That slipped to December 2019-June 2020.  Now June 2020 is no longer in contention.

NASA will not make any schedule commitments until a new Associate Administrator (AA) for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) is in place and has one to two months to assess the situation, Bowersox said.  He is the Acting AA, having been thrust into that position on July 10 when NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suddenly dismissed Bill Gerstenmaier.  Bowersox retired from NASA in 2006 after flying on five space shuttle missions, but returned in February to be Gerstenmaier’s deputy.  A search for Gerstenmaier’s replacement is underway.

Bridenstine has indicated in several venues he will select someone “soon,” but Bowersox said today only that it would be “by the end of the year.”

In response to a query from, a NASA spokesperson clarified by email that it “will be well before the end of the year.”

Bridenstine and Bowersox both point to the importance of picking exactly the right person as the reason it is taking so long, but many in the space community who are still stunned at Gerstenmaier’s ouster wonder why NASA did not have someone already in mind back in July.

That includes Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), chairs of the House SS&T committee and its space subcommittee, respectively.  Both brought it up in their opening statements today, although they did not press Bowersox on it.

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), Chair, Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, House Science, Space & Technology Committee, September 18, 2019.

“Why did NASA abruptly reassign its well-respected and longstanding head of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at a time when NASA is approaching key milestones for SLS and Orion, and Commercial Crew, while also planning for a Gateway and human landing system, all on tight timelines?,” Horn asked.

Johnson pointed out that “it has now been more than two months” since Gerstenmaier “was removed from his position, with no permanent replacement yet identified — even though that person is critical to the success of NASA’s exploration and ISS programs.”

NASA insists it has many talented people who are continuing to do their jobs so there is nothing to worry about, but that stands in contrast to its position that decisions on key issues like schedule cannot be made until the new person is in place.

The launch dates for SLS and Orion and readiness dates for their associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) have slipped many times and costs keep growing.  The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) Cristina Chaplain reminded the committee that for the past 5 years GAO has “consistently raised concerns about management” of these programs. Unrealistic schedules, cost estimates that are not transparent, and low levels of cost and schedule reserves are among the problems. “It is unrealistic to think that cost and schedule growth can be prevented all together, but better management practices can help reduce the impacts of problems that arise.”

NASA was working toward the goal of landing people on the Moon by 2028, but on March 26 the Trump Administration accelerated that to 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency if he is reelected.  The Moon-by-2024 program is now named Artemis after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

Bridenstine explains that moving the launch date up will reduce the “political risk” that a new president could take office and change the goalposts again as has happened in the past, but it is requiring NASA to change many plans and it has not told Congress how much it will cost.  The White House submitted a budget amendment in May asking for $1.6 billion more for FY2020, but the costs for FY2021 and beyond will not be provided to Congress until the FY2021 budget request is submitted in February 2020.  Bridenstine said at one point it would be $20-30 billion, or $4-6 billion per year, on top of NASA’s other programs, though later said it could be less than $20 billion depending on how much the private sector provides through public-private partnerships.

The plan had been to use SLS to ferry crews aboard Orion to and from a small space station, Gateway, orbiting the Moon.  Landers to take crews down to the surface and back would be docked at the Gateway.  In order to move the deadline up by 4 years, NASA now will build a “minimal” Gateway and rely heavily on public-private partnerships for it and the landers. One result is fewer launches of NASA’s SLS and more launches by commercial companies.

Doug Cooke, who spent most of his 38-year NASA career working on human exploration programs and headed its Exploration Systems Mission Directorate from 2008-2011, argued that the new plan is too complex and a simpler solution is needed.  He advocated for more utilization of SLS and particularly for an upgraded version called Block 1B.  That would use a more capable Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to lift heavier payloads and reduce the total number of launches required. It would also allow the lunar landers to be completely assembled and fueled before launch instead of in segments and assembled and fueled at the Gateway as currently envisioned. “The fewer launches and critical operations per mission the higher the probability of mission success,” Cooke said.  NASA’s current plan “doesn’t make sense to me.”

In an op-ed for the The Hill published on Monday, Cooke wrote that “apparently, under pressure from commercial launch providers who need additional launches to fill their manifests, NASA is being directed to break the lunar lander into multiple pieces so these can fit on less powerful commercial launchers increasing risk and constraining the architecture.”

Asked about that by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), Cooke responded: “I think pressure to get to commercial capabilities and drive that objective is causing us to do things that are higher risk.”

Bowersox pushed back: “Nobody’s driving us.” NASA made the decision to use commercial vehicles in addition to SLS in order to have more flexibility by having more systems, building on the success of the commercial cargo program.

Boeing is the prime contractor for SLS and EUS, which is managed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, part of Brooks’s district. Cooke is now a consultant and according to his “Truth in Testimony” form submitted with his testimony today, Boeing is one of his clients.

Critics point out that the SLS itself is far behind schedule, so the idea that resuming the EUS program would get people to the Moon faster than NASA’s new plan is not credible.  NASA has “deferred” work on EUS because of the delays in the current version.

Cooke also sees no need for the minimal Gateway because he thinks SLS/EUS can deliver everything needed for the 2024 goal. However, he sees the full-scale Gateway NASA was originally planning, and still hopes to have in place by 2028, as useful for the long-term sustainable lunar exploration program. He pointed out it also could be a prototype for a transit vehicle to send people to Mars.

President Trump and many members of this subcommittee, especially Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) who was there with his “Mars 2033” bumper sticker, see the Moon merely as a steppingstone to Mars.  While there are those who find the Moon a compelling destination in and of itself, Mars appeals to many who view the Moon as old news for human exploration. To them, the Moon is just a “proving ground” to learn how to live and work away from Earth at a place just 3 days away.

What are the chances that “the next man and the first woman” will land on the Moon by 2024, as Vice President Pence proclaimed on March 26?  Skepticism abounded today both by the subcommittee members and the witnesses.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) directly asked the panel: “How confident are you that we’ll have boots on the Moon by 2024?”

Bowersox said he would not bet his oldest child’s upcoming birthday present on it, but having an aggressive goal is helping NASA stay focused. NASA will “do our best to make it.”  What is important is to launch when everything is ready and be successful. “There is a lot of risk to making the date, but we want to try to do it.”

Cooke agreed that we should get there as soon as possible and having a sense of urgency will help, but these programs require “constant  problem solving and there’s a ways to go to get to the Moon.”  Chaplain added that aspirational goals are good, but there is a lot of risk and what is important is to have good management, which includes having a detailed architecture, good configuration management, good visibility into progress and being open and transparent about it, and having very good communication lines within the agency and with contractors.

Posey then asked if the commercial sector will get to the Moon before NASA.  Bowersox’s answer:  “I’ll still bet on us.  But they might be part of our program.”

The next critical step for the Artemis program is happening right now — getting Congress to provide the $1.6 billion supplemental for FY2020, which will allow NASA to sign contracts for the Human Landing Systems (HLS).  Bowersox says they need to be signed by the end of this year.  He told Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) that getting the money now is “critical to getting to the lunar surface by 2024.”  Without it, achieving that goal will be “much, much harder.”

The House passed the FY2020 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill in June, but did not include any of the extra $1.6 billion.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted yet.

FY2020 begins on October 1 and if Congress does not pass funding legislation, government agencies will have to shutdown.  The House plans to vote tomorrow on a CR that would keep the government open through November 21.  It does not have any special provisions for NASA so the agency would be kept at its FY2019 funding level and not allowed to start new programs.

What the House and Senate ultimately will agree upon is anyone’s guess, as is whether President Trump will sign it.  With only 5 years to meet Trump’s goal, any funding delay could mean the difference between success and failure.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.