America’s Apollo, Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs bespeak how a nation with a robust Human Space Exploration Program can lead the world in technological prowess, inspire its population to greatness, and attract strategic partners among like-minded nations.
Now, in preparation for human exploration of Mars, the U.S. once again has the opportunity to lead the world back to the surface of the moon to establish the first permanent human presence. The piece-parts of a program seem to be falling into place, but what is lacking is a Lead Program Office with the responsibilities and commensurate authorities to make and shoulder the risk of the architectural and technical decisions, control requirements, integrate schedules across multiple teams, and foster the necessary urgency and attention to detail needed to control cost which is primarily done by meeting promised schedules.
Just getting humans to the surface of the moon and returning them safely to Earth is a tremendous challenge. Across the country and spread amongst myriad contractors, the Saturn 5, Apollo capsule, Command Service Module and Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) all had to be designed and built, and — just as importantly — had to work together with a new Vehicle Assembly Building, crawler and launchpad. That the U.S. accomplished this in less than a decade still amazes.
A new Mission Control Center in Houston was designed, built, and staffed by engineers who would control the flights to the moon, along with simulators that would allow the astronauts to perfect new techniques for lunar transit, rendezvous and landing. None of this had ever been done before, nor could it have been done as quickly and consequently as efficiently had it not been for the program management structure NASA put in place to lead and integrate this great endeavor.
Building and sustaining a permanent human presence on the moon is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than Apollo — and doing so is essential to retiring the technological risks that must be overcome before venturing to Mars. We must develop new power generation approaches without dependence on a logistical trail of fossil fuels, space food production without earthly soil, and water sources that may be locked in lunar and Martian ice. We must develop habitats that can survive hostile environments, resilient and reliable space life support systems, surface transportation vehicles and manufacturing capabilities for a self-sufficient outpost. These capabilities and many more must be designed, developed, tested, integrated and proven reliable.
After years of investment, the U.S. is poised to lead. The critical heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket — the biggest since the Saturn 5 of the Apollo era — is being readied for its maiden test voyage this year. The SLS, with its unprecedented power and capabilities, is the only rocket that can currently send Orion, astronauts, and cargo to the moon in a single mission. The Orion capsule is ready to take a crew on a lunar fly-by on the second SLS test mission, and contracts for the Human Landing System and lunar Gateway are being let.
Our commercial space industrial base has expanded tremendously. From an engineering talent standpoint, we have never been so ready to proceed. On top of a robust NASA/industry workforce with decades of experience in Shuttle, ISS, national security and commercial space, “NewSpace” has spawned the next generation of young rocket scientists who cut their teeth on launch, satellite design, and human LEO operations. In sum, the space industrial base is at its most inspired, innovative moment.
But how can NASA achieve greater efficiencies from its own workforce, knowing the Artemis work is spread over many of its NASA field centers? How can costs be managed to maximize value to the taxpayers? How can all the necessary contracts be managed in a cost-efficient manner?
Currently, unlike the Apollo program, NASA does not have a central Lead Program Office for Artemis with requisite authorities and responsibilities to direct the entire effort. Without this critical organizational element in place, the odds of ensuring synchronized efforts across the enterprise are small, as tribal instincts across the NASA centers will undermine efficiency and integration — and decentralize unity of effort.
The hard day-to-day work of meeting and controlling requirements, integrating schedules, managing budgets, overseeing contractor performance, efficiently deploying the NASA workforce, holding teams accountable, planning a robust set of spaceflight missions and increased launch cadence, and, in the end, delivering on the promise is the work of a dedicated Lead Program Office. NASA “relearned” the need for this approach during the early phases of the ISS program and, as one might expect, they dusted off the playbook used for Apollo.
We learned technically how to go to and from the surface of the moon in the Apollo program, but just as importantly, we learned how to put together an organizational structure that could effectively lead and manage a diverse set of NASA centers and contractors. Going forward, it will be critical for NASA to incentivize and hold key contractors accountable for meeting performance, cost, and schedule targets.
It’s time to take the best lessons from our past and meld them with the promises of today’s technologies and innovative industrial base. It’s time to stand up an Artemis Program Office, modeled after the Apollo Program Office, with the long-term strategic vision for human exploration of Mars as its guiding star, but with a near-term laser focus on getting us back to the moon to stay — safely, on schedule, and within budget.
If successful America will once again reap the benefits of our Human Exploration Program.
Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton is the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command. He spent 11 years of his military career as a NASA astronaut, including flying Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-49 and STS-59, and then commanding STS-76 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. Chilton has served on numerous boards, including Aerojet Rocketdyne. He is an independent aerospace defense consultant and serves as a Stellar Advisor for Stellar Solutions, Inc. Additional former astronauts collaborated and were consulted on this article.