A Closer Look at NASA’s Proposed Human Exploration Plan

Credit: NASA

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA would launch the first element of a human-tended Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway in 2022 under a proposed exploration plan that would make use of commercial and international partnerships.

A power and propulsion module would be followed soon afterward by habitation, airlock, and logistics modules. The gateway would serve as a base for astronauts to explore the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 lifted off from the surface in 1972.

“The new Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway (LOP-G) will serve as a platform in cislunar to mature necessary short and long-duration deep space exploration capabilities through the 2020s,” NASA said in a FY 2019 budget document. “The LOP-G will be assembled in orbit around the Moon where it can also be used as a staging point for exploration, science, commercial and international partner missions to the lunar surface and to destinations in deep space.”

The Trump Administration’s $19.9 billion FY 2019 budget proposal includes $504.2 million to begin development of LOP-G, which was formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway.

An additional $116.5 million would be spend on developing advanced cis-lunar and surface capabilities and $268.2 million spent on exploration advanced systems for a total of $889 million.

“Exploration Advanced Systems (EAS) focuses on design, development, and demonstration of exploration habitation capabilities technologies to reduce risk, lower life cycle cost and validate operational concepts needed for future deep space habitation elements, including the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G),” the document says.

The space station formerly known as the Deep Space Gateway (Credit: NASA)

The programs will build upon work already being done under the space agency’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. NextSTEP is funding development work and studies on habitation modules, power and propulsion systems, in-situ resource utilization, and in-space fabrication technologies.

Although the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft remain central to NASA’s plans for lunar and deep-space exploration, the space agency said it will pursue a broad range of options to achieve its goals.

“NASA will engage with partners through nontraditional partnerships, commercial service purchases, and expanded international cooperative agreements….As part of this strategy to accelerate exploration, NASA will utilize a multitude of launch capabilities,” the document states.

“Additionally, the first un-crewed test flight of the SLS/Orion system will occur in mid-2020, leading to crewed missions in 2023. SLS and Orion will allow crewed exploration further into space than ever before,” NASA says.

An expanded view of the next configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, including the four RL10 engines. (Credit: NASA)

The space agency’s ambitions are not limited to the LOP-G and human exploration around the moon. NASA wants to pave the way for astronauts to return to the surface.

“In parallel, NASA is planning to develop a series of robotic lunar missions to the surface of the Moon. NASA will use innovative acquisition approaches to engage U.S. industry capabilities as the agency moves toward human exploration of the lunar surface,” the document adds. “NASA will also work with international partners in this endeavor.”

The space agency hasn’t landed a robot on the moon in 50 years. The last American robotic lander to touch down on the surface was Surveyor 7 on Jan. 10, 1968.

The Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities budget will

 support activities such as establishing initial commercial contracts for transportation services with a maximum payload range likely up to 200 kg, developing small rovers to be delivered via commercial landers, as building and launching instruments that serve lunar science, long-term exploration and utilization needs. ACSC will solicit, engage, and nurture growing capabilities beyond those initial landing capabilities and progress to a large commercial lander in the 5000 kg class, heading towards lunar utilization and a human landing long term.

Overall Exploration Funding

The LEMNOS project will provide laser communications services to NASA’s Orion vehicle, show in this artist concept. (Credit: NASA)

The proposed FY 2019 budget includes just under $10.5 billion for the exploration campaign, an increase of $547 million over what NASA is spending in the current fiscal year under a continuing resolution (CR). The CR was necessary because the FY 2018 federal budget was not passed in time for the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, 2017.

Nearly $3.7 billion of that amount would be spent on SLS, Orion and the related Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) program. That figure would represent a 5.43% reduction of $212.2 million from the current fiscal year.

Whether Congress will approve such a reduction remains to be seen. The Obama Administration typically tried to reduce spending on these programs in its budget proposals. However, Congress would reject the proposal and add money to the SLS, Orion and EGS programs.

The proposed budget for the space station and spaceflight operations would drop by 4.6 percent or $225.5 million.

The reduction comes in the space transportation line item. Funding for the Commercial Crew Program is reduced dramatically while the Crew and Cargo Program gets a large boost.

The change reflects a shift to development to flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon 2 crew vehicles. Test flights are scheduled for later this year, followed by commercial missions carrying NASA astronauts beginning in 2019.

Whether that schedule will hold remains uncertain. NASA’s internal estimates show that certification of at least one of the vehicles to carry space agency’s astronauts is likely to slip to late 2019, which would put those flights into the FY 2020 budget.

The budget includes $150 million for a new Commercial LEO Development program designed to foster the development of private commercial orbital platforms in low Earth orbit that could be operational by the mid-2020’s.

“The Budget proposes to end direct U.S. financial support for the International Space Station in 2025, after which NASA would rely on commercial partners for its low Earth orbit research and technology demonstration requirements,” the document states. “A primary purpose of the Commercial LEO Development program is to ensure that the United States has access to an orbital platform on which to conduct research and develop new technologies.”

The United States and its international partners — Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada — have agreed to operate the station until 2024. An extension to 2028 has been discussed, but none of the partners has signed off on it.

While NASA says a return to the moon requires ending the ISS program,  Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) and other members of Congress have criticized the plan as premature. Cruz and Nelson say the NASA Authorization Act of 2017 requires a study of whether station operations could be extended to 2028 or 2030.

Exploration Research & Technology

The proposed budget reorganizes NASA’s research and development programs into the new Exploration Research and Technology effort. Folded into the new initiative are the Space Technology and Exploration accounts, including the Human Research Program and elements of Advanced Exploration Systems.

“A driving requirement of the Exploration Research and Technology strategy is to serve as a key technology and risk reduction provider for NASA’s exploration missions,” the document states. “This means investment in research and development across the Technology Readiness Level spectrum and developing technologies to a flight hardware readiness state with the objectives of increasing performance, reducing risk, and increasing affordability and reliability.

“It also means developing the scientific and technological expertise to send humans into deep space for longer durations through cutting edge research on space flight and the space environment on the human body. Exploration Research and Technology activities will focus primarily on the following areas, which are central to the Exploration Campaign:

  • Advanced environmental control and life support systems & in-situ resource utilization (ISRU);
  • Power and propulsion technology (including space fission reactors, nuclear thermal propulsion, and high powered solar electric propulsion);
  • Advanced materials;
  • Communications, navigation and avionics (including laser communication, disruption tolerant networking and high performance spaceflight computing);
  • Entry, descent and landing (including Lander technologies);
  • Autonomous operations;
  • In-space manufacturing and on-orbit assembly; and
  • Research to enable humans to safely and effectively operate in various space environments.”

The decision to fold the separate Space Technology budget into the Exploration program is a controversial one. NASA’s former chief technologist, Mason Peck, decried the proposal in a recent series of  tweets.

“Disastrous news! NASA is already dismantling STMD , even though the President’s budget is only a month old. Don’t give up. We need Space Technology if we want NASA to have a bold future. I hope Congress will reject this gutting of NASA’s technology investments.”

Deputy Administrator Paquin says that virtually all of the Space Technology budget is preserved but embedded within Human Space. NASA’s plan here violates best practices for successful technology enterprises, which need independent thought and leadership.

Some say that the Space Technology Mission Directorate () is the SpaceX of : young, innovative upstarts that are changing the world, pushing the agency to embrace new ideas in space exploration and science.

In essence, Peck is concerned that funding intended for advanced technology R&D will get diverted to pay for cost overruns on hardware such as SLS and Orion that are under development.

The problem occurred during NASA’s Constellation program, which was developing the Ares rockets and Orion spacecraft. To prevent this, a separate Space Technology program was created by the Obama Administration.

Peck is also concerned over reports that NASA is implementing the plan before Congress has had time to fully consider, much less approve, the proposed change as part of the Trump Administration’s FY 2019 budget request.