“Unambiguous Goal” Still Needed for Moon/Mars

“Unambiguous Goal” Still Needed for Moon/Mars

At another congressional hearing on the Trump Administration’s directive to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2024 and on to Mars, questions persisted today about whether NASA has the right plan.  Legendary astronaut Tom Stafford argued that NASA’s architecture is too complex and success hinges on keeping it simple.  Veteran NASA and space industry insider Tom Young went further, asserting that what is needed is a “clear, unambiguous goal” — is the Moon a destination itself, or just a waypoint to Mars?  Meanwhile, a key Republican said the chances of NASA getting the extra money it needs this fiscal year to make the 2024 deadline appear to be “dwindling.”

Congress continues to wrestle with how to respond to the surprise March 26 announcement by Vice President Pence accelerating the effort to return astronauts to the lunar surface by four years. NASA was on a path to land a crew there in 2028 as the beginning of a sustainable program of lunar exploration and utilization with international and commercial partners. But Pence directed the agency to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency assuming he is reelected.  The program later was named Artemis.

President Trump has since made it clear, however, that his vision is sending people to Mars and the Moon is just a stopover on the way.  Although NASA officials still frame Artemis in the context of creating a sustainable presence on the Moon, Trump’s position opens the door to some confusion on that point.

The Administration sent a supplemental FY2020 budget request to Congress on May 13 for $1.6 billion, acknowledging it as only a down payment on what will be needed to meet the Moon-by-2024 goal, never mind Mars.  NASA has repeatedly declined to provide a cost estimate for the entire 5 years, insisting it will not have that answer until the FY2021 budget is submitted in February. That puts Congress in a conundrum, not knowing what it is signing up to if it approves the supplemental request.  The House-passed version of the FY2020 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill ignores the request.  The Senate-passed version provides some, but not all of it.  The two chambers are working on a compromise version of the bill.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) said today the prospects of NASA getting that money appear to be “dwindling” based on a recent hearing before the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee.

His comments came at a hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on “Keeping Our Sights on Mars Part 2: Structuring a Moon-Mars Program for Success.”  Democrats and Republicans on the committee support human space exploration, but are not sure this is the way to do it.  Committee chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) calls it a “crash program … that sets NASA up to fail rather than enabling it to succeed.”

Tom Young testifying to House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Space Subcommittee November 13, 2019

Stafford and Young were invited to give their perspectives based on their decades of experience. Stafford was a NASA astronaut in the Gemini and Apollo era. After two Gemini missions, he circumnavigated the Moon on Apollo 10 as a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission 50 years ago and later commanded the 1975 U.S-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.  Young was also working at NASA in those days, but on robotic space exploration. He managed the Viking program that landed the first two U.S. spacecraft on Mars in 1976, Viking 1 and 2, and later was director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  He moved to industry and rose up the ladder to be President of Martin Marietta until it merged with Lockheed to become Lockheed Martin.

Both have remained deeply involved in space throughout the decades as Moon/Mars efforts have waxed and waned. Stafford led the so-called Synthesis Group during President George H.W. Bush’s administration that laid out architectures for executing his Moon/Mars vision, the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI). He currently chairs NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee. After retiring from Lockheed Martin, Young became the go-to person to chair independent reviews of military and civil space programs that go awry.  He most recently led the review of the much-delayed and over-budget James Webb Space Telescope.

Young’s dominant message was that to be successful, the program needs a “clear, unambiguous goal.”   Is the Moon just a proving ground to demonstrate whatever is necessary to send people to Mars?  Or is the Moon itself the goal, with Mars as a follow-on?  To him, Mars is the “compelling” goal and he worries NASA may get “bogged down” on the Moon.

Tom Stafford testifying to House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Space Subcommittee November 13, 2019

He and Stafford agreed that once the goal is clear, a detailed plan is needed and a talented leadership team to execute it. They point to Apollo as an example where industry leaders like Sam Phillips and George Mueller were brought in to manage aspects of the program. While not criticizing NASA’s current leadership, they emphasized the need to “augment” those ranks.

As for the plan, right now astronauts will get to the Moon in an Orion capsule launched by the Space Launch System (SLS) and dock at a small space station, the Gateway, in lunar orbit.  There they will board a Human Lander System (HLS) to get down to the surface and back.  After returning to the Gateway, they would depart back to Earth in Orion.  Eventually the Gateway would also serve as a transfer point for astronauts headed to Mars.

NASA will own SLS and Orion, which are being built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, respectively.  The Gateway and the HLS are being procured as public-private partnerships (PPPs) building on the models of the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs NASA is using for sending cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in low Earth orbit (LEO).  The elements of Gateway and HLS would be launched by commercial rockets, not SLS.

NASA also plans to use PPPs for new commercial space stations in LEO to replace ISS, so NASA can lease services from companies rather than owning LEO space stations itself.

Young is no fan of PPPs, calling them “management experiments. …  I personally think that these should be government-acquired assets under the leadership and direction of NASA” rather than NASA abdicating decision-making to industry.  He also thinks NASA’s human spaceflight program is over-subscribed and not all of these programs — ISS, commercial space stations, Gateway, HLS  — can be funded or managed at the same time.  He sees no need for Gateway for the lunar program, though it may be useful for Mars.

For his part, Stafford is no fan of NASA’s entire approach to returning to the Moon.  He aligned himself with Doug Cooke, a former top NASA official and now a Boeing consultant who testified to the subcommittee in September.  Cooke argued that NASA’s plan of sending astronauts to a Gateway and then down and back to the surface using HLS systems that may require three parts (a transfer vehicle, a descent vehicle and an ascent vehicle), each launched separately, involves too many launches and other operations like rendezvous and docking. He advocated using a more capable version of SLS to accomplish the entire mission in just two launches.  His views are controversial because the current version of SLS is over budget and very late, with the first launch not expected until 2021, and NASA has suspended building the upgraded version.

Stafford agreed with Cooke, however, because simplicity reduces risk.  “You want to keep things as simple as possible.  … I don’t think that starting with eight launches to put a series of four small things together is going to be the right way to go.”  He also said that during his four space missions, he executed more rendezvous operations than any other astronaut and he is not convinced it will be possible to rendezvous and dock spacecraft in the lunar orbit NASA has chosen for the Gateway (a Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit).

The bottom line is that eight months after Pence announced the Moon-by-2024 goal, despite broad, bipartisan support for the overall vision of going back to the Moon and on to Mars, no consensus has emerged politically or technically on how to make it happen.

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