Two Phases of the Moon — NASA Will Tackle Lunar Return Fast, Then Sustainably

Two Phases of the Moon — NASA Will Tackle Lunar Return Fast, Then Sustainably

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today that NASA is dividing its human lunar exploration program into two phases.  Phase 1, to be completed by 2024 as directed by the White House, will focus on getting astronauts to the lunar surface fast.  Phase 2, by 2028, will focus on making the program sustainable. The plan itself remains the same as before, but the Administration will request funding to accelerate it by 4 years.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaking at the Space Symposium April 9, 2019. Screengrab.

Bridenstine spoke at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO.  He offered few new details on how NASA will fulfill its new mandate to land humans on the Moon in 5 years, but conveyed enthusiasm and confidence that NASA will succeed.

Since March 26 when Vice President Mike Pence, as chairman of the White House National Space Council, tasked NASA with that goal, Bridenstine has spoken to the NASA workforce and testified to two congressional committees, but provided little in the way of an actual plan.  Yesterday he announced that he is hiring Mark Sirangelo to develop a strategy and plan as well as lead a reorganization of the agency.

Today, however, he indicated that the plan is the same as it was prior to March 26, but now will happen in two phases.

In Phase 1, the focus is speed.  “We want to get those boots on the Moon as soon as possible. … Anything that is a distraction from making that happen we’re getting rid of.”

That means getting the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) with an uncrewed Orion capsule, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), off the launch pad by the end of 2020.  A test flight of SLS and Orion, EM-1 has slipped repeatedly.  Until last month, it was on the books for June 2020, but prime contractor Boeing told NASA last month that it would slip again into 2021.  Instead of accepting a new delay, however, it appears to have been the catalyst for the current rush to speed up the schedule and look at alternatives to SLS.  Bridenstine since has reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to SLS for EM-1 and insists EM-1 will launch by the end of next year, which would be a 6- month slip.  How Boeing will achieve that is unclear.  NASA officials have said the issues delaying the launch are technical and cannot be fixed by adding money. Apparently they are looking at changing some of the testing requirements, but nothing definitive has been announced yet.

Keeping to that schedule will be one key to fulfilling the “speed” of Phase 1, but there are many more.  The Orion spacecraft that will be used on EM-1 will not be outfitted with life support systems to support a crew.  The fully capable Orion, with a crew, will be flown on EM-2.  Bridenstine said only that EM-2 needs to be flown “as soon as possible.”

The current architecture also requires development of a small space station in lunar orbit, the Gateway, where Orion will dock; a transfer vehicle to take astronauts from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit; a descent vehicle to land them on the surface; an ascent vehicle to get them off the surface; and spacesuits to wear while they are on the surface. The Gateway just received its first funding in the FY2019 appropriations bill signed into law in January.  The other elements are conceptual.

NASA’s plan was to do all that by 2028.  It now must do it by 2024. How much it will cost to accelerate the program is unknown.  The Administration is working on a revised budget request for FY2020 that will include that information.

Bridenstine still has 2028 as a milestone.  Phase 2 is “sustainabilty by 2028.”  That means reusability to reduce costs, a theme Bridenstine often invokes.  It also means commercial and international partners.  Canada is the only country that has already committed to working with NASA on the Gateway, though others have expressed interest.  They, like everyone else, were taken by surprise by the sudden White House decision to accelerate the program.

Congress has not agreed to the White House proposal yet. Congressional reaction so far ranges from skepticism to wait-and-see what the plan is and how much it will cost.  One concern is that NASA will take money from other parts of NASA to fund the Moon 2024 program.  Bridenstine made clear today that he has no plans to “cannibalize” other NASA programs.  NASA has a history of doing that, he said, but “it doesn’t work” because it creates partisan discord and bipartisanship is essential to success.

Bridenstine reminded the audience today that Pence told him to get Moon-by-2024 done “by any means necessary” and that “the mission matters more than the means.”

Pence also said that if NASA cannot do it, NASA must change, not the goal.

That certainly puts a lot of pressure on the agency, but Bridenstine is not deterred.  “NASA is committed. NASA has the people to achieve it. And when it is accomplished it will be an all-of-the-United-States accomplishment. And I am so grateful for all that we are about to do at this little agency we call NASA.”

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