NASA Galactica: The Plan

No. 6 with two old model Cylons.

“The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”

— Battlestar Galactic

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Watching the re-imagined “Battlestar Galactic,” I was never quite sure exactly what the Cylons’ plan was beyond the whole exterminate all humans with nukes thing. In an apparent nod to this lack of clarity, the producers created a two-hour TV movie called, “Battlestar Galactic: The Plan,” to explain it all.

NASA has suffered from a similar lack of clarity over the past week. At a National Space Council meeting last Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence announced it was the Trump Administration’s policy to land astronauts on the south pole of the moon by the presidential election year of 2024 — four years ahead of the current schedule.

“In Space Policy Directive-1, the President directed NASA to create a lunar exploration plan,” Pence said. “But as of today, more than 15 months later, we still don’t have a plan in place. But Administrator Bridenstine told me, five minutes ago, we now have a plan to return to the moon.”

A plan for achieving the goal, before Pence’s second term is out, for returning astronauts to the moon. That was big news. Or, it would have been, if there actually was one.

Bridenstine had few details to share with the National Space Council. Or with the House Appropriations subcommittee he testified before the following day. The same was true for the all-hands meeting the administrator conducted with NASA employees on Monday.

The plan remains a work in progress as Bridenstine and other top NASA officials examine a variety of mission architectures. All options, including the use of private rockets, are on the table. NASA’s going to need more money — nobody seems to know just how much — to meet the new deadline. And some parts of the original plan will need to be “descoped.”

Despite the dearth of information, there were some interesting nuggets in the all-hands meeting. Bridenstine explained that a 10-day review failed to find any commercial solutions that could fly Orion around the moon next year.

Various options involving launches of the SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and United Launch Aliance’s Delta IV Heavy had various technical issues that would have prevented a satisfactory launch in 2020.

Looking a few years further out, Bridenstine said that a Falcon Heavy equipped with a Cryogenic Upper Stage built by ULA could send astronauts into lunar orbit. There are a number of technical challenges involved in integrating the technology that would need to be overcome first.

As for what NASA would land astronauts on the moon with, Bridenstine was a bit fuzzy on that. Yes, he said, it could be a two-person vehicle. Or maybe something else. Details TBD.

The reason NASA is looking at commercial boosters is not merely because its deadline for a moon landing has been nearly cut in half. It is due to further delays with the Space Launch System (SLS), which is Orion’s Congressionally-designated ride to the moon.

Boeing recently told Bridenstine that the first SLS launch with an automated Orion spacecraft will be delayed beyond the planned June 2020 date to as late as November 2021.

Bridenstine says he’s now confident NASA can get the flight off by the end of 2020. However, given the length of the possible delay and the program’s record of blowing through every planned launch date for years, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether that will prove to be accurate.

Even if they get the launch off next year, the SLS program’s future is still uncertain. If NASA can get some Frankenstein combination of SpaceX and ULA hardward to work at a much cheaper cost, then why should it use the enormously expensive SLS?

The answer, of course, is that Congress wants an enormously expensive program to employs a lot of people in multiple states. There is a lot of bipartisan support for SLS.

Bridenstine, who previously served in Congress, acknowledged the challenges and pledged to work with members of both parties on the Hill to gain support for the White House’s new plan. Whether he will succeed remains to be seen.

One thing that is clear is that the White House plunged ahead with the new plan without having its ducks lined up either at NASA, Congress or even in its own budget. The Trump Administration’s FY 2020 budget proposal, which it released only weeks ago, doesn’t have nearly enough money to pull off a moon landing in five years.

John F. Kennedy took a different approach when he launched NASA toward the moon the first time in 1961. Struggling to respond to the Soviet Union’s launch of Yuri Gagarin and knowing the U.S. would be behind for some time, Kennedy asked for a longer term goal that would allow NASA to leapfrog the Soviets.

NASA had already developed plans for the Saturn series of boosters and the Apollo spacecraft. In 1960, the space agency proposed a plan to the Eisenhower Administration to send three astronauts around the moon in an Apollo spacecraft. Ike rejected the idea.

Even thought it had no flight experience under its belt, NASA projected it could achieve a moon landing as early as 1967. Administrator James Webb told the president to substitute a vaguer deadline of the end of the deadline to accommodate unexpected delays. He was right.

NASA has a lot more space experience now. And the space agency is starting at more advanced stage than it was in 1961. So, it’s possible that an all-out program with significantly more money could return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.

A key challenge is NASA is not just going to the moon this time to prove American superiority to the Soviet Union. Or to China. It’s going there to stay. And therein lies the problem with advancing the date by four years so that a re-elected Donald Trump has a legacy and Pence has something to run in his attempt to succeed his boss.

Bridenstine talked about “de-scoping” elements of the current plan and eliminating anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary to accomplish a moon landing in 2024. What that will mean for developing a sustainable plan for living and working on the moon and preparing astronauts to go on to Mars remains unclear.

The last rush to the moon left us with flags, foot prints and a lot of hardware sitting in museums. We ought not repeat that mistake again.