White House Keeps Up Pressure on NASA at Space Council Meeting

White House Keeps Up Pressure on NASA at Space Council Meeting

Vice President Mike Pence presided over the sixth public meeting of the White House National Space Council today.  At the last meeting in March, Pence directed NASA to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, four years earlier than planned, adding that if NASA could not do it, NASA would have to change, not the goal.  Today, Pence kept up the pressure while also praising the progress NASA is making.

As part of his introductory remarks, Pence laid out what NASA and its commercial partners have been doing since March to execute the Moon-by-2024 program, now named Artemis. But he also said —

“And we’ll continue to transform NASA into a leaner, more accountable, and more agile organization.  Isn’t that right, Jim?” — Vice President Mike Pence

The remark was directed at NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who instantly answered, “yes, sir.”

Repeated delays in NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) program were a major catalyst in the March announcement to accelerate, rather than delay, plans to put American astronauts back on the Moon. The first SLS launch was scheduled for 2018, slipped to 2019, and then to 2020. At the beginning of this year, SLS prime contractor Boeing indicated it would slip to 2021.  The White House decision to move up, rather than push back, the date for getting astronauts on the Moon essentially threw down the gauntlet to NASA and Boeing to end the delays and get the rocket flying sooner rather than later.

The SLS core stage is being built at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans.  Bridenstine visited there last week and told the Space Council today that what he saw was “eye watering.”  He enthused that because of program and process changes made since March, the core stage is now “well over 90 percent” complete.  “By the end of this year … we’re going to move that rocket out of the factory and we’re going to test it.”

That “Green Run” test of the core stage outfitted with its four RS-25 engines will take place at Stennis Space Center sometime next year.  It takes several months.  If all goes well, the rocket then will be shipped to Kennedy Space Center for additional tests. Despite the recent progress, it is looking as though the first SLS launch nevertheless will be in 2021.  Still, the air was full of optimism today.

Several other Artemis milestones were mentioned by Pence and Bridenstine including achieving “capsule complete” for the Orion crew spacecraft (it now goes into a period of testing), awarding contracts for elements of the Gateway, and selection of Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama to lead the effort to develop lunar landers in cooperation with Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Texas.  Pence said “we can actually start ‘bending metal’ on the lander in the next year.”

The landers will be procured as public-private partnerships where NASA will buy services from companies to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface rather than building and owing the landers itself.  Contractors have not been selected yet.  The choice of Marshall instead of JSC to lead the lander effort is controversial.  Pence and Bridenstine insist the two Centers will work together and it is good news for both.

The overall message was that Artemis is proceeding full steam ahead while the White House and NASA are working with Congress to get the $1.6 billion additional funding needed for FY2020.  No mention was made of the total cost of the program.  Bridenstine told a congressional committee last month that the Administration will not have those numbers until the FY2021 budget is submitted in February, but estimates are in the $20-30 billion range over 5 years on top of NASA’s current budget of about $21 billion per year.

Presidents have a key role in cutting budget deals with Congress since they must sign whatever bills Congress produces.  President Trump has created some confusion over his personal support for the Moon program, however.  In tweetsspeeches, and recently an Oval Office ceremony to commemorate the Apollo 11 landing, it is clear that Mars is on his mind.  As recently as last Thursday during a campaign rally he reiterated that American astronauts will plant the American flag on Mars “soon.” The Moon did not get a shout out.

Pence and Bridenstine stress that the Moon is a steppingstone to Mars, a proving ground to learn how to live and work on a world that is just 3 days instead of months away from Earth.  They repeatedly invoke the phrase “Moon to Mars” to demonstrate they are on the same page as the President.  Others on the White House staff clearly are in on the effort.  Bridenstine laughingly recounted a meeting he had with the White House National Security Council (NSC) yesterday to bring them up to date on Artemis where an NSC staffer handed out boxes of M&Ms with a presidential seal.  Asking why, Bridenstine was told that it was a reminder that it is the “Moon and Mars” — M and M — program.  He gave a box to Pence with a smile.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (L) holds up a box of M&M’s bearing the signature of President Donald Trump while providing an update to Vice President Mike Pence (R) and the members of the National Space Council during the sixth meeting of the Space Council,  Aug. 20, 2019.  National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace is sitting behind them in the center. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Bridenstine noted that the Gateway, the small space station that will be placed in lunar orbit to support the Artemis program, is “evolvable” into a gateway to Mars, “in fact, that is our ship to get to Mars.”  He added that with the “right investments” in nuclear thermal propulsion and entry-descent-and-landing technologies for 20-metric ton payloads “we can put together a really robust Mars plan.”

Rex Geveden, President of BWX Technologies, was one of four panelists who briefed the Space Council today.  His company is working on nuclear thermal propulsion.  He said it is about twice as efficient as chemical propulsion and could reduce the travel time to Mars to 3-4 months instead of 6-7 months.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been leading a review of the regulations governing the launch of nuclear material into space. OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier, a member of the Space Council, reported on it today and a few hours later the White House released a National Security Decision Memorandum with the updated regulations.

Clive Neal, professor and lunar resources expert at the University of Notre Dame, was another panelist. He pushed back on the concept of the Moon simply as a steppingstone to Mars.  He believes that an enduring human spaceflight program requires delivering a return on investment to taxpayers.  To him, that means developing lunar resources and “creating wealth through cooperation with private enterprise,” and establishing a sustainable base of operations on the Moon “for stimulating a cislunar economy” and making journeys to Mars and other deep space destinations “affordable and sustainable.”

Panel of experts at National Space Council meeting August 20, 2019. L-R: Rex Geveden, BWX Technologies; Clive Neal, University of Notre Dame; Saralyn Mark, iGIANT and SolaMed Solutions; and Elizabeth Turtle, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. Screengrab.

A third panelist, Saralyn Mark of iGIANT and SolaMed Solutions, focused on gender and sex differences in spaceflight.  Men and women react differently to spaceflight physiologically and psychologically. That must be taken into account in the design of spacesuits, other high performance garments, human-machine interfaces, tools, and hardware, as well as spacewalk training protocols and medical guidelines for countermeasures and precision medicine.  She wanted to make it “crystal clear” that this “is not about who is faster, better or smarter, just different.”  She pointed out that permissible radiation exposure for women is lower than for men “which could impact their ability to participate in long duration spaceflights.”

In other NASA news, Pence said the first commercial crew flight with astronauts aboard will fly “before the year is out.”  SpaceX and Boeing are developing the commercial crew systems under public-private partnerships with NASA.  Both must conduct uncrewed and then crewed test flights before being certified for operational missions.  SpaceX completed its uncrewed flight in March, but then encountered problems that have delayed the crewed test flight. Boeing has not flown either and the schedule is fluid. But optimism was the watchword today.  Bridenstine said crewed flights are “on the brink of being ready.”

Bridenstine also talked about NASA’s new efforts to stimulate commercial space stations in low Earth orbit and the reason why — “we want to use resources that the taxpayers give to us to go to the Moon” rather than spending it on LEO operations like the International Space Station.

The fourth panelist, Elizabeth (Zibi) Turtle of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, addressed innovation in space science missions.  NASA recently selected her Dragonfly proposal as the next New Frontiers mission.  Dragonfly is a dual-quadcopter that will fly over the dunes and seas of Saturn’s moon Titan.  The mission will “help transform our understanding of the chemical reactions that may have led to life here on Earth.”  Importantly, it exemplifies “innovation and discovery across multiple scientific and engineering disciplines, across boundary lines within and between government agencies and institutions, and across international borders.”

The Space Council also addressed commercial and national security space issues.  At the end, the members endorsed a list of recommendations to the President, most of which are directed at NASA.  Some of them return to the theme of keeping the pressure on NASA to improve itself that Pence raised during his introductory remarks.

For example, NASA is to present at the next Space Council meeting a “plan to stabilize” the SLS and Orion programs and “prevent future cost and schedule overruns.”  Despite the progress cited during the meeting, both are still just in testing.  The plan must include projected launch windows for the first two flights.   Artemis-1 is an uncrewed test flight, while Artemis-2 will be the first flight with a crew.  If all goes well, Artemis-3 will be the mission to deliver the crew that will land on the lunar surface.

Among other tasks, NASA is to  —

  • within 60 days, designate an office and submit a plan to Pence for sustainable lunar surface exploration and development;
  • together with the State Department, continue efforts to engage international partners for Artemis, with lunar surface operations as the top priority for international cooperation;
  • facilitate the development of commercial or public-private successors to the International Space Station;
  • report at the next Council meeting on potential lunar resources to support sustainable lunar activities and science opportunities that could involve commercial partners;
  • together with the Department of Defense, report at the next Council meeting on efforts to mitigate industrial base barriers and constraints to accomplishing Artemis; and
  • together with the Director of the Office of Personnel Management and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, report on workforce modernization efforts to address barriers in Federal statute, regulations, policies, or practices that impede NASA’s ability to deliver on its critical mission requirements.



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