Advisory group skeptical of NASA lunar exploration plans

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s plans to return humans to the surface of the moon within 10 years got a chilly reception from an advisory group Nov. 15, who called on the agency to accelerate that timeframe and reconsider development of the Gateway facility in lunar orbit.

At the meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group at NASA Headquarters here, Tom Cremins, associate administrator for strategy and plans at the agency, provided an overview of the NASA “Exploration Campaign,” the high-level approach it plans to undertake to implement Space Policy Directive 1.

That campaign involves development of the lunar Gateway, featuring modules from NASA and international and commercial partners. NASA also plans to develop “human-scale” landers, starting with a descent stage that can be tested at the moon as soon as 2024.

A concluding slide from his presentation outlined NASA’s proposed achievements by 2028 under this campaign. A bulleted list of milestones included “Returned humans to the lunar surface,” underlined for emphasis. That plan, he noted, is notional and depends on budgets, but if NASA’s budget remains stable, with inflationary growth only, “we think we basically can do all this.”

exploration campaign goals
Goals of NASA’s lunar Exploration Campaign, as outlined in a slide during a Nov. 15 meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’s Advisory Group. Credit: NASA

Some committee members, though, criticized the plan as not being ambitious enough. “Personally, I think 2028 for humans on the moon, that’s 10 years from now. It just seems like it’s so far off,” said former astronaut Eileen Collins. “We can do it sooner.”

“This comes across as having no sense of urgency,” said Harrison Schmitt, the Apollo 17 astronaut. “I think there should be a sense of urgency.” The pace of the proposed program, he said, didn’t match what took place under Apollo. “I think of launching Saturn 5s every two months and you’re barely going to launch them every two years,” he said of the Space Launch System.

Cremins said the pace of the program was dictated by budgets and the desire to create a sustainable program that can survive for the long term. “We’d love to do it tomorrow if we could,” he said. A “crash program,” though, “might do a lot of damage that makes it unsustainable and lose our competencies in other areas.”

Others took issue with the development of the Gateway. “I’m quite opposed to the Gateway,” said Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Using the Gateway as a staging area for robotic or human missions to the lunar surface is “absurd,” he argued. “Why would you want to send a crew to an intermediate point in space, pick up a lander there and go down?”

Aldrin said he liked the “Moon Direct” concept proposed by Robert Zubrin, the engineer best known for his advocacy of Mars missions, that involves lunar landers traveling from Earth orbit to the lunar surface and back. He added he had similar ideas, although not as polished yet as Zubrin’s.

Later in the meeting, a former NASA administrator chimed in. Mike Griffin, currently the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, met with the committee to discuss national security space issues, but was asked about his views regarding the Gateway and a 2028 goal for humans on the lunar surface

“I think 2028 is so late to need as not even to be worthy of being on the table,” he said, noting he was offering his personal opinion only. “Such a date does not demonstrate that the United States is a leader in anything.”

“The architecture that has been put in play, putting a Gateway before boots on the moon, is, from a space system engineer’s point — which is the only thing in life I was ever good at —a stupid architecture,” he said, arguing instead to move “with all deliberate speed” to go back to the moon and access its resources. “Gateway is useful when, but not before, they’re manufacturing propellant on the moon and shipping it up to a depot in lunar orbit.”

Griffin raised the specter of China getting humans to the moon before NASA can achieve a return to the lunar surface. “My opinion is, if the Chinese wanted to do it, they could pretty easily be on the moon within six, seven, eight years, no problem,” he said. “They never seem to be in a rush. They play the long game, so I’m not saying they will be on the moon in six to eight years, but if they wanted to I believe they could.”

“For them to be back on the moon when the United States can’t get back on the moon, I think is a travesty,” he added. “I think such an event would cause a realignment of geopolitical thinking that would be extraordinarily damaging to the United States.”

Those comments are not the first time Griffin has suggested China would land humans on the moon before the United States could return people there. “I personally believe that China will be back on the moon before we are. I think when that happens, Americans will not like it, but they will just have to not like it,” he said in a September 2007 speech.

At the time, Griffin was NASA administrator, charged with carrying out the Vision for Space Exploration that included a human return to the moon by 2020. That program was terminated by the Obama administration in 2010, but to date China has yet to send humans beyond Earth orbit, and its human spaceflight program is focused on development of a space station set to begin operations in the early 2020s.