NASA plans talks with partners on ISS and Artemis

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COLORADO SPRINGS — NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy plans to use this week’s Space Symposium to meet with international partners on both the long-term future of the International Space Station and roles in later phases of NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration effort.

In an interview, Melroy compared the symposium to the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) as a forum for meeting with other space agencies. She represented NASA at the most recent IAC in Dubai last October, holding similar meetings with other space agencies, including Roscosmos.

There have been seismic geopolitical shifts in the five months since IAC, though, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to sanctions that cut off Russia from the West in nearly all space activities other than the ISS. Despite those tensions, she noted ISS operations continue largely unaffected and she remains optimistic that the station can be extended to 2030.

NASA is also in discussions with international partners on Artemis as NASA lays the groundwork for the “sustainable” phase of the program later in the decade after the Artemis 3 landing no earlier than 2025. That includes, she said, working on a long-term strategy for the effort to identify the work NASA and partners want to do on the moon as preparation for human missions to Mars as soon as the late 2030s.

Melroy spoke with SpaceNews about Artemis, ISS and other issues March 30, hours after NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned from nearly a year on the station on a Soyuz spacecraft.

What specific issues do you plan to discuss with other space agencies at Space Symposium?

ISS always comes up. It’s always a priority for us. It’ll be a good opportunity for us to talk about the progress and plans of our partners, in terms of working with their governments on the extension to 2030. They were waiting for us and, once we were able to get that extension through and the White House blessed it last year, they’ve now got to start working through their government processes. We’ll be very interested in hearing how they’re doing with that and if there’s any way we can support them.

The other big thing on my mind to talk about is more future-based. I want to talk about what approach we are taking for the architecture for moon to Mars. I’ll be talking a little bit about this at the plenary, outlining a few key points, but going in a little deeper with the partners. We are seeking to build a consensus around what we are trying to achieve, particularly what we need to achieve at the moon to go on to Mars. This is the right time to do it. We’re in a place where we understand what we’re doing through Artemis 4, but we need to nail down the objectives of the subsequent Artemis missions and what we’re going to try to achieve. We can highlight gaps where partners, both in industry and internationally, may be interested in filling.

How much of those ISS discussions will be about the extension to 2030 versus near-term issues, including questions about Russia’s commitment to the space station?

I expect that will come up. I am sure we will discuss what we see and know. I was excited to see Mark Vande Hei land. That was a big deal, and that just goes to show this is a professional relationship on both sides. I think it’s a great thing that space and science is something that seems to unite us, even when we have disagreements elsewhere.

Is there any contingency planning for a Russian decision not to participate in an extension of the ISS to 2030?

We are NASA, so we always talk about all kinds of plans, and there’s a lot of stuff on the shelf for failure modes and things like that. We are just continuing to stay close to what’s going on. Everything is working very professionally and very smoothly. We are certainly a little bit stressed with our staff in Russia. One outcome of this is a reduced staff in Russia. I hesitate to use the word contingency planning. It’s thinking things through, especially if we are squeezed harder on staff in Russia. I feel pretty confident we have a good plan there.

What is the status of negotiations on a seat barter agreement with Russia to allow astronauts to fly on Soyuz and cosmonauts on commercial crew vehicles?

That’s a great question. We’re certainly watching that closely. That is something that the State Department is doing for us. Clearly, we support them, but it’s really a better question for State.

Do you expect to talk with ISS partners about roles they will have on the commercial space stations that NASA is helping fund development of as successors to the ISS?

There’s a varying level of urgency among our international partners about how much they want to engage in that. I think some are definitely thinking about it, and some are less concerned. My personal belief is that there’s tremendous value in government-to-government agreements. They help smooth over some of the policy issues. The question is, what does that look like? We’ve got some time to work that out. I’m more focused on the moon-to-Mars agreements and getting that in place.

What feedback have you gotten about the agency’s $26 billion budget proposal for 2023?

I’m sure it’ll be a topic of discussion. One of the things I’m excited about in the budget is that it’s beginning to lay in a steady and resilient cadence for our Artemis missions. That allows us to start mission planning to make the progress we need to prepare to send humans to Mars. The HLS second lander announcement is a part of looking at that whole architecture and filling in any gaps to get to a steady cadence with resiliency.

That budget rollout included a manifest of missions that featured a sizable gap between the Artemis 3 lunar landing in 2025 and Artemis 4 in 2027. Do you risk losing momentum with a gap like that?

The last administration was working hard to pull that first moon landing forward as far as it could to 2024. With COVID, contract protests, and other things, we’re at 2025. It’s absolutely an aggressive schedule, but we’re going to make a hard run at it with our partners. Doing that has exposed that we were really pulling things forward to try to achieve that date. How are we backfilling that to get to a more regular cadence? That’s what we’re beginning to address right now.

I don’t like that little blank spot on the schedule any more than you do, but I’m not actually sure it’s going to turn out that way. The key thing is to make sure we really understand the hardware we need to get that steady cadence going, and that doesn’t happen overnight. This budget is going to help us do that.

Congress, in its report accompanying the 2022 omnibus spending bill, asked NASA for a report on its long-term Artemis plans. When do you expect to have that ready?

We have an architecture right now. It’s highly notional in many regards. This year, we’re focused on ensuring that we’re all on board with the objectives that we have to achieve: what do we have to do on the moon, what do we have to demonstrate, what do we have to design? We still want to consult with our international partners and with industry. It’s so important that we all see the same objective. I think that’s going to inform the architecture. We will have something that incorporates all the objectives we want to achieve and something that I believe will satisfy what everyone wants, including me, by the end of the calendar year.

Singapore recently became the 18th country to sign the Artemis Accords. What are your plans for attracting more countries, and what are you doing with the countries that have already signed?

We have several more in the hopper, and I’m excited about that. It shows a strong awareness that the Outer Space Treaty, which I think we all stand behind, needs to take the next step about how we interpret it. We want to bring the best of humanity out into the solar system when we go. To me, the willingness of so many of our international partners to sign indicates that everyone sees that as a value too.

As far as what is next, we are talking about that. If you are a signer of the Artemis Accords, we are hosting special events to share updates, discuss the approaches we’re taking and seek feedback. We’re also seeking feedback on governance, such as anything they would like added to the Artemis Accords. 

Besides Artemis, the ISS and science missions, what other milestones or upcoming events are on your radar?

There are several things of interest to me that I’m tracking closely. One of them is the first flight of our first X-plane in a long time, the X-57, and then, we hope, the first flight of the X-59. That is going to be exciting. One thing I love about the X-59 program, which is our low-boom demonstrator, is that we’re laying the groundwork to fly it around the country to test the noise of the boom. Being able to show off this crazy-looking airplane all around the country is exciting because it gives people an opportunity to remember that aeronautics is a key part of our mission.

We’re also kicking off the Earth System Observatory, which is incredibly important. Also, our Earth Information Center, which is a really small program but I think it’ll be mighty in the sharing of critical data between us and our partners in the government who all collect climate data and Earth data, and being able to make that more accessible. Those are the things that I’m excited about.