NASA seeks to accelerate work on lunar missions

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WASHINGTON — NASA is now emphasizing speed in its lunar exploration plans, including seeking to fly payloads on commercial lunar landers before the end of this year as it works with industry on lander concepts.

In a briefing with reporters at NASA Headquarters here Feb. 14, prior to an industry day for a new human landing systems study procurement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the agency was working as fast as it could to develop the capabilities needed to return humans to the moon.

“We want this reusability, we want this sustainability, but we also want to go fast,” he said. “It’s important that we get back to the moon as fast as possible.”

That includes accelerating its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where NASA will buy payload space on commercially developed landers. In November, the agency awarded contracts to nine companies, making them eligible to compete for future task orders to delivery payloads.

The first of those task orders will be announced in the next month, said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, pending finalization of the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget. “We’d like to fly this calendar year,” he said. “We want to go fast.” The ability to do so, he said, will depend on whether companies have landers ready to go.

To try to get a first CLPS payload launched this year, Zurbuchen said it will offer unspecified financial bonuses. “If you can fly faster, we will incentivize that,” he said. “We care about speed.”

NASA is also lining up payloads to fly on those CLPS missions. Zurbuchen said NASA will announce the week of Feb. 18 the selection of about 12 payloads proposed within the agency that would be ready to fly later this year. “If we have a ride in late 2019, we will have instruments in late 2019,” he said.

Those payloads will be a mix of science and technology development investigations, from a near-infrared spectrometer to a test of stereo imaging to analyze plumes created during landing. Some of those, he said, were originally developed for Resource Prospector, a NASA mission cancelled as the agency shifted to commercial landers.

A separate solicitation is looking for payloads outside of NASA that could be developed quickly, and final proposals are due to NASA in late February. Zurbuchen said NASA prioritized that program as it worked to recover from the five-week partial government shutdown that ended last month. “This is the one thing we advanced the fastest,” he said.

As NASA works to accelerate the CLPS program, it’s also moving ahead on studies with industry to examine potential approaches of part of the system NASA anticipates needing for landing humans on the moon. The studies will examine elements including a transfer vehicle, descent stage and refueling system.

Proposals for this broad agency announcement (BAA), part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, are due March 25. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the agency hopes to make awards in May to allow the six-month studies to begin by July. After that, NASA could select some of those concepts for additional work, including hardware development.

The studies are intended to fit into NASA’s existing reference architecture, which has focused on three-stage landing systems involving a tug, descent stage and ascent stage. Gerstenmaier said that NASA will wait to study an ascent vehicle to see if human rating requirements can be restricted to just that component of the overall system.

Gerstenmaier said there’s some willingness to consider alternative architectures, although not within this specific announcement. “We’re not totally closed if there are some proposals that come in that are different, that want to reflect a totally different architecture,” he said. “They won’t necessarily be part of this BAA study, but we’ll take those off to the side.”

“We’ll go take that proposal that’s outside, we’ll figure out another instrument and a way to work with them to see what’s there, and then trade that later against this architecture to see if it’s better,” he said later.

This emphasis on speed came after criticism of the agency’s approach, including from members of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group during a November meeting. “This comes across as having no sense of urgency,” complained Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt at that meeting, after a briefing of an architecture that called for landing people on the moon by 2028.

“What’s happened here is that we have a new direction, and that new direction is to get to the moon,” Bridenstine said, a reference to Space Policy Directive 1. “We’re trying to make that happen as soon as possible because it’s in the interest in our country.”

He added that he agreed with the advisory group’s recommendation “100 percent” on accelerating plans for a lunar return, but that was not the only factor: he recalled “wanting to see more speed out of NASA” back when he was a member of Congress.

However, the architecture that Gerstenmaier presented at the industry day still called for landing people on the moon by 2028.