NASA’s Uncertain Path Back to the Moon

Astronauts explore a crater at the lunar south pole. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Nothing illustrates the changes wrought by the Trump Administration’s decision to move up the deadline for returning astronauts to the moon from 2028 to 2024 than a pair of contracts NASA awarded for the Lunar Gateway that will serve as a staging point for the landing.

In May, Maxar won a competitively awarded $375 million contract to build the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE). NASA released a source selection statement that detailed how officials evaluated the five bids they received and why Maxar’s proposal was superior to the others.

The source selection statement is designed to demonstrate that the process was fair, and that NASA made a decision that is in the best interest of the space agency and taxpayers. It would be a key document if any of the losing bidders decided to appeal the decision to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The power and propulsion element of NASA’s Gateway is a high-power, 50-kilowatt solar electric propulsion spacecraft – three times more powerful than current capabilities. (Credits: NASA)

NASA took a very different approach in awarding the contract for the Gateway’s Minimum Habitat Module (MHM) that will house astronauts. After paying five companies to construct habitat mock-ups, the space agency decided to make a single-source, non-competitive award to Northrop Grumman.

The reason? Northrop was the only company that could have the MHM in place in time for the 2024 landing date. Bidding out the project would take too long, the space agency said.

Northrop will adapt the Cygnus spacecraft it uses to ferry supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Eleven of the expendable spacecraft have flown to the station.

The decision makes good on NASA’s pledge to move faster to meet the accelerated deadline. In skipping a competitive award process, the space agency used its authority under the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP-2) program, which it used for the habitat mock-up contracts.

Whether the MHM award will stand up against any appeals filed with GAO by the losing bidders remains to be seen. Bigelow Aerospace Founder Robert Bigelow has already publicly questioned the award.

Disrupting Space

Mike Pence

Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement in March that the first human moon landing since 1972 would be moved up four years has, to borrow a cliche from Silicon Valley, disrupted the U.S. space program.

Speaking during a meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Ala., Pence said that NASA Administration Jim Bridenstine had told him five minutes before the session began that the space agency had a plan to accomplish the new goal.

Yet, when it came time for Bridenstine to speak later in the meeting, he had nothing. There was no plan, no budget, no clear path to a landing in 2024. NASA apparently had not done any of the trades — comparisons of the costs, benefits and drawbacks of various mission architectures — that would have allowed the administrator to present anything remotely resembling a plan.

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The lack of preparation — and, apparently, lack of prior consultation with Congress — have given the last four months an improvised quality. Bridenstine and his team have scrambled to fit a nine-year program into five at a cost that would be palatable to Congress and the Trump Administration.

NASA’s more leisurely schedule to land in 2028 was designed to avoid the “flags and footprints” approach that limited the Apollo program to six brief explorations of the surface before it concluded in December 1972.

Sustainability would be the key. The U.S. would return to the moon to stay using reusable vehicles and permanent habitats. While they were there, astronauts would test out the technologies needed for more ambitious human missions to Mars. And partnerships would be forged with private companies interested in mining lunar resources.

Bridenstine says those goals for the newly renamed Artemis program remain, although in a modified form.

American Flags & Footprints First

The plan that has emerged would schedule a flags and footprints landing for 2024 while postponing the development of elements that would enable sustainability to the 2025-2028 period. The initial Lunar Gateway has been radically scaled down, and reusable vehicles are being delayed.

The new plan front loads all the glory of a moon landing into a presidential election year (we’ll get to that in a moment) while back loading much of the expense and technological complexity on to whoever becomes president in 2025.

The change might also raise the total cost of the Artemis program. A plan that builds sustainability in from the start might be cheaper than one that adds it in later.

Orion and European Service Module orbiting the Moon. (Credit NASA/ESA/ATG Medialab)

Retiring Political Risk

The accelerated lunar program has certain lit a fire under NASA, giving the space agency a sense of urgency that it hasn’t had in a long time. Strong support from the White House is often necessary to push big programs like Artemis forward.

Given the opportunity to return to the moon, NASA employees reacted with a lot of skepticism. Oh, not again! Presidents since Apollo have pointed to the moon, Mars and/or asteroids promising to send astronauts there. And yet, nobody has ventured beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) in nearly 47 years.

A metaphor for our inability to return to the moon: Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown.

As Bridenstine has scrambled to develop a new plan, he has repeatedly reassured NASA employees would not be another example of Lucy Van Pelt pulling the football away from Charlie Brown as he tried to kick it — a gag seen in “Peanuts” comic strip and television specials.

The NASA administrator has argued that accelerating the moon landing would reduce the political risk to the Artemis program of constantly changing priorities that have resulted from new presidential administrations.

Bridenstine is right in one sense. It is doubtful Trump would be very enthused about a moon landing that can’t be accomplished during a hoped-for second term. For a man who has put his name on everything from hotels to steaks and wines, it’s the ultimate branding opportunity.

Because NASA has told Trump that it cannot accomplish a crewed flight to his preferred destination, Mars, before the 2030’s, he has rather reluctantly settled on the moon.

However, reducing political risk by accelerating Artemis assumes two conditions that are not yet in evidence.

The first condition is continuity of leadership: there’s no guarantee that Trump and Pence will be re-elected next year. A Democratic president with other priorities and no interest in rushing to the moon could enter office in 2021.

Back loading all the complicated and expensive elements of returning to the moon to the 2025-28 period has its own risks. Would a new president continue funding the program? A flags and footprints mission in 2024 might result in the same reduction in political and public support that followed the Apollo 11 landing in 1969.

The second condition that must exist — regardless of when the landing takes place — is bi-partisan support in Congress. If the support and the funding are not there, NASA will have a difficult time sustaining Artemis.

Bridenstine has said he has heard a lot of support for the 2024 landing from legislators of both parties. Other signs from Capitol Hill are not as encouraging, however.

Convincing Congress

The political rationale for moving up the moon landing is clear enough. Trump and Pence will campaign over the next 15 months on the promise of making NASA great again by landing astronauts on the moon during their second term. The program supports a lot of jobs in key states such as Florida, Texas and Alabama.

The plan would allow the president to retire in 2024 having put the Trump brand on the moon. Pence would run to succeed him as the man who spearheaded the effort as chairman of the National Space Council.

It would be a much easier plan to implement if Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress. But, the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives last years makes it a much more difficult pitch.

Democrats are not inclined to support anything that helps Trump and Pence get reelected. In fact, House Democrats have just begun impeachment inquiry to remove Trump from office in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress last week.

Eddie Bernice Johnson

But, the skepticism goes far beyond their hatred of Trump. House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (R-Texas) has criticized the administration for putting forth an “ill-defined crash program” without a compelling rationale to accelerate it by four years.

Pence has invoked China in justifying the new date.

“We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s and the stakes are even higher,” Pence said during the National Space Council meeting in March.

“Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent space-faring nation,” he added.

Johnson is among many in Congress who are not buying it.

“The simple truth is that we are not in a space race to get to the Moon. We won that race a half-century ago, as this year’s commemoration of Apollo 11 makes clear,” Johnson said.

“And using outdated Cold War rhetoric about an adversary seizing the lunar strategic high ground only begs the question of why if that is the Vice President’s fear, the Department of Defense with its more than $700 billion budget request, doesn’t seem to share that fear and isn’t tasked with preventing it from coming to pass,” she added.

What is this Going to Cost?

Cost is another concern. Initial press reports indicated NASA would have to spend $20 to $30 billion more over five years to land on the moon by 2024. That would be on top of NASA’s current $21.5 billion annual budget.

Bridenstine denied the amount was that high. He estimates NASA could accomplish a landing in five years for less than $20 billion in addition funding using commercial partnerships. However, he does not have any firm estimate yet.

One key element of the Artemis architecture that NASA has not awarded any contracts for yet is the lunar lander that will take astronauts to and from the lunar surface. Five years is not a lot of time to develop such a complicated vehicle.

Members of Congress have expressed concerns about Artemis raiding other NASA programs that have strong bi-partisan support. The Trump Administration requested that Congress give Bridenstine the authority to transfer funding from other programs to meet the 2024 deadline. The request received a cool reception on Capitol Hill.

There are also concerns about cuts in other parts of the federal budget. A Trump Administration plan to increase funding for Artemis by raiding the surplus in the Pell Grants program was strongly opposed in Congress. The grants fund college education for students with financial needs.

FY 2020 Budget Requests

For fiscal year 2020 that begins on Oct. 1, the Trump Administration requested funding increases for Artemis that would have required cuts in other parts of the agency’s budget. The administration subsequently submitted a supplemental request of $1.3 billion of new lunar spending that didn’t raid other programs.

The budget requests have received a cool reception from House Democrats. The House Science Committee has largely rejected the proposed increases for Artemis and the cuts in other programs.

The committee did not take up the $1.3 billion supplemental request, which was submitted only days before legislators voted on the NASA funding bill. Legislators will likely to take up the request at a later date.

Sen. Ted Cruz

The Senate has not weighed in on NASA’s FY 2020 request yet. Sen. Cruz, who chairs the Senate space subcommittee, has said he is working with fellow legislators on an authorization bill that lays out “a bold, visionary agenda for NASA and manned space exploration so that America continues to lead the world in exploring space.”

Cruz did not elaborate except to say that it would support the Trump Administration’s plans to send astronauts to the moon and on to Mars. Differences between the House and Senate spending bills would be worked out in a joint committee.

One positive bit of budget news is the Trump Administration and Congressional leaders worked out a two-year funding deal last week that will increase federal spending by $320 billion and raise the amount the government can borrow to fund itself.

The agreement still has to pass muster with the full Congress, so it’s not a done deal yet. But, it makes it possible that Congress will pass and the president will sign a federal before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. That has not happened in many years.

If there is no budget by Oct. 1, Congress would need to pass a continuing resolution (CR) that would keep funding at FY 2019 levels and prevent the start of new programs. Bridenstine has said a CR would be devastating to efforts to meet the 2024 landing date.

Trust Us

President Donald Trump signs an executive order reviving the National Space Council. (Credit: The White House)

One key problem with Artemis is that nobody yet knows what the revamped program will cost. The Trump Administration wants Congress to provide initial funding now, but it doesn’t plan to reveal cost estimates for the program until it presents the fiscal year 2021 budget request in February.

Now, that’s not normally how these things normally work. Congress doesn’t sign on to supporting programs without solid cost projections. It’s not that the numbers will always prove correct, but members need something to base their decision on.

Trust us, the Trump Administration is telling Congress. Bridenstine, who became a space policy expert while serving in the House before being appointed NASA administrator, has credibility on Capitol Hill. He has even won over Democratic members who opposed his confirmation, largely based on his denial of global warming.

Trump is far less credible, particularly among Democrats. As of June 10, Trump had made 10,776 false or misleading statements since taking office 869 days earlier. That is an average of 12.4 statements per day, a rate political analysts say is unprecedented in American politics.

Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft on Pad 39B. (Credit: NASA)

Pence’s Threat

During his speech in March, Pence vowed to use “any means necessary” to accomplish the moon landing by 2024. That he made that vow in Huntsville was seen as a threat to the Marshall Space Flight Center, the NASA center there that oversees development of the perpetually delayed and over budget Space Launch System (SLS) that will launch moon missions. Get the program on track, or heads will roll.

William Gerstenmaier

Earlier this month, Bridenstine made good on the threat. The administrator removed William Gerstenmaier from his post overseeing Artemis and NASA’s other human spaceflight programs.

Gerstenmaier was shifted into an advisory role that is probably his first step out the door of an agency where he has worked for 42 years. Former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox took over as associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations in an acting capacity.

Christian Davenport at The Washington Post reports the change was removed due to additional delays in the moon program.

Industry officials said that [Vice President Mike] Pence and others in the White House have become livid about the agency’s lack of progress, particularly regarding the massive rocket known as the Space Launch System, or SLS, that NASA has been developing for more than a decade but has yet to fly. White House officials expressed their dismay to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a meeting within the last few weeks, according to a space industry official not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations.

In an interview Thursday evening, Bridenstine strongly denied that, saying, “If they are frustrated with the agency’s efforts, they haven’t communicated that to me because we’re moving out to get to the moon in 2024.” He added: “I just want to be clear — this was my decision. I didn’t get this from the White House at all.”

There had also been tension between Bridenstine and Gerstenmaier, officials said. Bridenstine repeatedly had said, for example, that he would not cut other programs within the agency to fund the moon program, known as Artemis. But Gerstenmaier contradicted him during an advisory council meeting, saying recently, “We’re going to have to look for some efficiencies and make some internal cuts to the agency, and that’s where it’s going to be hard,” he said, according to SpaceNews.

The National Space Council declined to comment, but an administration official said, “This was an internal NASA decision, and Administrator Bridenstine’s statement speaks for itself.”

Bridenstine said that he thinks “very highly” of Gerstenmaier, said there was no tension between them and praised Gerstenmaier’s 42 years of service to the agency. But he added that he had been thinking about making a change for some time and had grown weary of the repeated schedule delays and cost overruns of the hardware needed to meet the White House’s 2024 mandate.

Politico also reports

Gerstenmaier’s abrupt reassignment this week from the space agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate came after a “blow up” with Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard over additional delays with the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, a space industry insider with direct knowledge tells us.

NASA has since acknowledged that the first flight of SLS and Orion around the moon without a crew has slipped from 2020 to 2021. Some sources say the mission will not occur until late 2021.

Gateway with Orion over the Moon (Credit: ESA/NASA/ATG Medialab)

Such a delay could endanger the 2024 landing date. NASA plans to send a crew around the moon on the second SLS/Orion flight. Astronauts would utilize the Lunar Gateway as a staging location to land at the lunar south pole on the third flight.

It should be noted that NASA is building SLS against the wishes of Trump’s predecessor. In 2010, the Obama Administration canceled the Constellation program, which included the Orion spacecraft and two Ares rockets derived from space shuttle technologies.

In the place of Constellation, the Obama Administration proposed the Commercial Crew program to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and a research program to develop a new heavy-lift vehicle for deep-space missions.

Congress balked. Under a compromise, Orion was saved while the smaller Ares that would have launched it on flights to the space station was canceled in favor of commercial crew. The heavy-lift Ares rocket for Orion missions into deep space evolved into the shuttle-derived SLS.

Thus, it is difficult to determine how much Gerstenmaier is to blame for Artemis’ problems, and how much can be attributed to the complicated SLS booster that Congress insisted NASA build. It remains to be seen whether a change of leadership will move Artemis along any faster.

A Commercial Approach

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying 24 satellites as part of the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program-2 (STP-2) mission launches from Launch Complex 39A, Tuesday, June 25, 2019 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credit: NASA)

On inference that many people drew from Pence’s “any means necessary” threat in Huntsville was that SLS itself was on the chopping block if there were further delays in the Artemis program.

That’s the path that many commercial space advocates want NASA to take. Some believe it’s the only way for the space to meet the 2024 deadline. Canceling SLS and moving Orion to commercial rockets would free up billions of dollars for lunar landers and surface elements, they argue.

Following Pence’s announcement, Bridenstine suggested SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could be used to send Orion on an un-piloted mission around the moon instead of SLS. He later said a NASA study indicated the option would take longer than using SLS.

In late May, Bridenstine announced the space agency would be sticking with its existing architecture.

Artist’s rendering of an ascent vehicle separating from a descent vehicle and departing the lunar surface. (Credit: NASA)

“SLS and Orion is the only system that gives us any chance of getting there in 2024,” Bridenstine said. “We’ve looked at everything, we’ve considered everything and SLS and Orion, that is the system. And once it’s developed, we will use it over and over and over again.”

Bridenstine has said NASA plans to use commercial launchers to build and supply the Lunar Gateway. But, SLS remains at the heart of the Trump Administration’s accelerated lunar program.

Canceling SLS with a presidential election looming next year would be politically risky. It would put a lot of people out of work in key states that Trump and Pence would have to carry in order to win re-election.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) at the ULA production facility in Dacatur. (Credit: ULA)

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby strenuously opposes any effort to cancel the giant rocket. The powerful Republican legislator chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and serves on the subcommittee that approves NASA’s budgets. Shelby also led the fight against the Obama Administration’s cancelation of Constellation.

Shelby is not the only member of Congress the Administration would anger if it were to cancel SLS. The program enjoys broad bi-partisan support there.

And, in Summary

So, here’s where we are four months after Pence’s surprise announcement that the Trump Administration was moving up the moon landing by four years:

  • NASA has settled on contracts for two elements of the Lunar Gateway;
  • a budget agreement provides hope for additional funding, but it’s too early to know how much NASA might get;
  • Bridenstine has made a vague cost prediction for additional funding (under $20 billion) without providing any details;
  • Congress is being asked to approve a substantial down payment based on trust;
  • House Democrats have no trust in the president, no desire to see him re-elected, and are not convinced the United States in a new race to the moon with China;
  • the political risk of canceling SLS and moving Orion to commercial boosters before a presidential election is extremely high;
  • moving the landing up four years doesn’t necessarily retire other political risks;
  • NASA hasn’t awarded any contracts for the landing vehicle that would take astronauts to and from the lunar surface; and,
  • the entire program remains tied to a launch architecture that is enormously expensive and whose first flight has slipped again.

That’s one helluva way to run a railroad. It remains to be seen whether NASA can build one that can get two astronauts to the lunar surface in five years.