Moon 2024: A new sense of urgency

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This article originally appeared in the April 8, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

In the half-century since Apollo 11 landed on the moon and ended the original space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, many in the space community have sought to return humans to the moon, seeking to capture the same degree of enthusiasm and attention — not to mention funding — as Apollo.

None of those previous attempts, though, has been as bold as the latest effort to get back to the moon. NASA was already working on plans to return humans to the moon in the late 2020s when Vice President Mike Pence took the stage at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, March 26 for the fifth meeting of the National Space Council. With a relic of Apollo, a restored Saturn 5 rocket, hanging above him, Pence sought to conjure up the urgency of that earlier program.

“At the direction of the president of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Pence announced.

That line got a round of applause, of course, even if some of the people clapping were stunned. With one sentence, Pence was directing NASA to accelerate its lunar landing plans by four years, with few details about how it would be accomplished, or for how much.

Racing China and complacency

Pence was not the first elected official in the post-Apollo era to set a deadline for a human return to the moon. In 2004, President George W. Bush called on NASA to land astronauts on the moon by 2020 as part of the Vision for Space Exploration, although he said such missions could take place “as early as 2015.” In 1989, President George H.W. Bush was less specific when he unveiled the Space Exploration Initiative, calling on the country to go back to the moon “in the new century,” or more than a decade in the future.

Vice President Mike Pence turns to talk to Scott Pace, National Space Council executive secretary. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Vice President Mike Pence turns to talk to Scott Pace, National Space Council executive secretary. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

By setting a deadline just five years away, Pence sought to invoke the space race of the 1960s. “We have the technology to return to the moon and renew American leadership in human space exploration,” he said. “What we need now is urgency.”

He argued the United States was locked in a new space race with China and Russia, citing as an example the successful robotic landing of China’s Chang’e-4 on the lunar farside in January. That landing, he claimed, “revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s pre-eminent spacefaring nation.”

There was another competitor in this race as well, Pence said. “We’re also racing against our worst enemy: complacency.”

That desire to battle complacency dates back months. Last fall, NASA was putting together its plans to implement Space Policy Directive 1, which called on NASA to lead a human return to the moon but did not set a deadline for doing so. At a November meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group, agency officials outlined how it could do so, using the Space Launch System, Orion, the lunar Gateway and a new lunar lander, by 2028.

Members of the group panned that proposal. “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.

“This comes across as having no sense of urgency,” said Harrison Schmitt, who walked on the moon on Apollo 17 in 1972, the most recent human mission to land there. “I think there should be a sense of urgency.”

NASA publicly stuck to that 2028 date for a human landing. At a Feb. 14 industry day for studies of human lunar landers, the agency discussed what it called a “notional human landing system reference architecture” that featured a human lunar landing in 2028, two years after an “end-to-end human-class test” of the entire lunar landing system.

But in a meeting with reporters that same day, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested he’d like to get there sooner. “We have a new direction, and that new direction is to get to the moon,” he said when asked about the advisory group’s comments from three months earlier. “We’re trying to make that happen as soon as possible.”

There was, though, no mention of any changes in that plan when the White House released its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal March 11, which even appeared to dial back some parts of it, such as deferring work on the Block 1B version of the SLS. Two days later, Bridenstine said the agency was studying moving the Orion that was to fly on the first SLS mission, EM-1, to commercial vehicles.

But, somewhere around that time, Pence gave the direction to NASA to accelerate its lunar plans. At a March 21 speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, offered some foreshadowing. “Our civil space sector, especially human spaceflight, I think needs a greater sense of urgency,” he said. “We’re looking to the vice president to providing guidance on that charge at the next meeting.”

In November, members of the National Space Council’s Users' Advisory Group panned NASA’s proposal for landing on the moon in 2028. “[T]hat’s 10 years from now. It just seems like it's so far off,” said former astronaut Eileen Collins, shown at a June meeting beside Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
In November, members of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group panned NASA’s proposal for landing on the moon in 2028. “[T]hat’s 10 years from now. It just seems like it’s so far off,” said former astronaut Eileen Collins, shown at a June meeting beside Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky
Exactly when Pence informed NASA of the 2024 deadline, though, remains unclear. “The vice president and I had had conversations about accelerating the path to the moon,” he said at an April 2 House Science Committee hearing. “Ahead of his announcement, yes, he had told me he was intending to make that announcement, and he wanted to make sure that was within the realm of possibility.”

“And, of course, I told him I believed it was,” he added.

How and how much

The vice president’s announcement offered urgency, but lacked details about how NASA would accelerate its human lunar landing plans by four years. Moreover, both he and Bridenstine offered mixed messages about how it could be carried out.

Pence, in his speech, suggested he was open to alternative approaches to getting to the moon if they could be done faster than SLS and Orion. “If American industry can provide critical commercial services without government development, then we’ll buy them,” he said. “And if commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be.”

Bridenstine emphasized during a town hall meeting with NASA employees April 1 that he is “taking nothing off the table” about accomplishing that goal. “At the end of the day we’re going in 2024, whatever that takes.”

At the same time, though, Bridenstine has suggested that the plan for getting to the moon in 2024 will make use of a lot of existing capabilities. “The plan is all there. A lot of the pieces of the architecture are already there. We’re just going to have to pull a number of them forward,” he said in an interview after a speech April 1 at an astrophysics workshop outside Washington.

“All of the elements are there from the plan that we had previously,” Bridenstine said at an April 2 House Science Committee hearing. “Some of those elements we need to start moving forward.”

One such element would be a lunar lander. Proposals for NASA’s human lander study were due to NASA March 25, a day before the vice president moved up the goal for landing on the moon, but the agency hasn’t provided an update on what it will do with the proposals, or the overall program. Bridenstine suggested at the town hall that NASA might look at a scaled-down two-person lander to achieve the 2024 goal.

The lunar Gateway might also be changed from designs promoted just weeks earlier with both NASA modules and those from international partners. “Certain things are going to have to be de-scoped,” he said. “We’re not building the International Space Station around the moon.”

“All of that is in flux,” he said of the Gateway’s design at the House Science Committee hearing.

The mixed messages extend to SLS as well. Pence appeared to be criticizing Boeing, the prime contractor for the troubled core stage of the vehicle, in his speech in Huntsville. “To be clear, we’re not committed to any one contractor,” he said. “If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will.”

But, in the same speech, he said, “we must accelerate the SLS program to meet this objective.”

Bridenstine said later at the Space Council meeting that NASA had ended its two-week study to look at commercial alternatives to SLS and decided to stick with the giant rocket for EM-1. No commercial approach, he said in a later statement, “was capable of achieving our goals to orbit around the Moon for Exploration Mission-1 within our timeline and on budget.”

Instead, NASA is looking to find ways to speed up work on SLS to avoid more delays in EM-1. Bridenstine told a House appropriations subcommittee March 27 a 45-day study was underway on accelerating the rocket’s development. One option under consideration is doing away with the “green run” static-fire test of the SLS core stage at the Stennis Space Center, which could shave months off its development schedule.

"At the end of the day we're going in 2024, whatever that takes," NASA Administrator Jim Bridestine said during an April 1 town hall meeting with NASA employees. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
“At the end of the day we’re going in 2024, whatever that takes,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridestine said during an April 1 town hall meeting with NASA employees. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Another uncertainty is how much this plan, in whatever form it takes, will cost. Bridenstine said he’s working with the Office of Management and Budget for a budget amendment to be submitted to Congress by the middle of April that will outline how much more the agency needs to carry out the 2024 goal.

He assured those at the astrophysics workshop that the money won’t come from elsewhere in the agency. “It has been tried in the past that we ‘cannibalize’ one part of NASA to fund another part of NASA,” he said. “You have an administrator who will work as hard as possible to make sure that is not on the agenda for the future.” “We will need more resources if we’re going to the moon in 2024,” he said.

Rhetoric versus reality

But how much more? “The president’s budget for fiscal year 2020 is clearly insufficient,” Jack Burns, a University of Colorado astrophysics professor who served on the Trump administration’s NASA transition team, said April 2.

Burns said he believed NASA needs about $25 billion a year to carry out this revised exploration plan without touching science programs. “We’re not that far away,” he argued. That figure is $4 billion above NASA’s original request for 2020, and $3.5 billion above what it received in 2019.

The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry group, also warned about funding. “Bold plans must be matched by bold resources made available in a consistent manner in order to assure successful execution,” it said in a statement shortly after Pence’s speech.

Even if OMB is willing to approve a supplemental request for several billion dollars, getting Congress to literally buy in is a different matter. Even before Pence’s announcement there were complaints about a budget request that once again sought to close NASA’s education office and cancel several science missions. Congress will also be grappling with spending caps that, if not lifted, threaten a return of budget sequestration.

The House Science Committee hearing suggests that NASA faces an uphill battle. “The truth is that we are not in a space race to get to the moon,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chairwoman of the committee. She rejected Pence’s claims about China seizing the “lunar strategic high ground,” noting that it did not appear to be a concern to the Defense Department and its far larger budget.

“Given the absence of an urgent crisis, it would be the height of irresponsibility for the vice president of the United States to direct NASA to land astronauts on the moon within the next five years without knowing what will cost,” she continued. “Rhetoric that is not backed by a concrete plan and believable cost estimates is just hot air.”

Bridenstine, at that hearing, told Johnson and others that plan would be ready later in the month. “What we’re working on right now at NASA is compiling the data necessary to come back to this committee, to come back to Congress,” he said, “and attempt to win the buy-in of this critically important committee and the United States Congress.”

Such a plan, all would agree, is now a matter of urgency.