Gateway logistics module
A NASA illustration shows an Orion spacecraft approaching the lunar Gateway with a logistics module, modeled on Northrop Grumman's Cygnus spacecraft, attached. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Members of a NASA safety panel praised the agency for moving ahead quickly with aspects of its Artemis program to return humans to the moon, but warned about perceptions of a leadership vacuum for that effort.

At a Sept. 6 meeting at the Johnson Space Center, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) largely complemented NASA for implementing aspects of the Artemis program in recent months, from selecting companies to provide the first elements of the lunar Gateway to plans to solicit proposals for lunar landers.

“I was particularly impressed with the kinds of things that NASA is doing to position the Artemis program for success,” said George Nield, former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration and a current member of ASAP, during the 45-minute meeting. He said the various requests for information and solicitations, primarily using commercial approaches, was “really impressive.”

An example he discussed was NASA’s Human Landing System program, which released a second draft solicitation Aug. 30, with plans to make multiple awards for nine-month studies by the end of this year. “That is quite a procurement pace, and certainly is not an indication of a business-as-usual schedule,” he said.

“The bottom line is that it appears that Artemis is off to a great start,” Nield concluded. “If Congress agrees to provide the needed funding, NASA may have a real shot at achieving the 2024 goal.”

That doesn’t mean that Artemis doesn’t have its share of challenges, including those with safety implications highlighted by the panel. Former astronaut Sandra Magnus, another ASAP member, warned of the complexity of integrating multiple elements, such as Gateway modules and lunar landers, that are being procured and developed separately.

“Managing and tracking risk, and actively performing risk mitigation across such a complex ecosystem will require vigilance and constant communication, and some forethought about how to navigate the contractual environment that this program will utilize,” she said.

She also recommended that NASA require that lunar lander providers perform an uncrewed test flight of their landers prior to the first crewed mission. Such a test would be a “major risk reduction exercise” for the vehicle, she argued.

While panel members largely commended NASA for its progress on Artemis, Patricia Sanders, chair of the committee, noted the absence of a permanent associate administration for human exploration and operations, who oversees Artemis and other human spaceflight efforts. Bill Gerstenmaier, who held that post for years, was reassigned to a special advisor position nearly two months ago.

Gerstenmaier’s deputy, Ken Bowersox, is currently the acting associate administrator while NASA conducts an extensive search. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Aug. 21 it could be several weeks before he selects a permanent successor to Gerstenmaier.

Sanders, who thanked Gerstenmaier for his “significant contributions” to the agency during a career spanning more than four decades, said agency leadership needed to be “cognizant” of the effects of such leadership change, including the uncertainty it creates.

“Having positive confirmation of the specific direction from a permanent leader is imperative,” she said. “A sense of uncertainty should not be allowed to linger during this critical time.”

Sanders added there was “admittedly anecdotal” evidence that the leadership change was linked to a belief that schedule should take priority. NASA has denied that’s the case, she said, but “this message must be reiterated strongly and often, and since actions speak louder than words, decisions must continue to be made with this imperative in mind.”

An example, she noted, was the agency’s decision in July to proceed with a Green Run test of the Space Launch System next year, where the core stage will be transported to the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for a full-duration static fire test. Bridenstine suggested in the spring that the Green Run could be shortened, or skipped entirely, to save several months of schedule.

ASAP, in meetings in April and June, said it opposed skipping the Green Run, calling it a critical test for the vehicle. “This Green Run will be an outstanding milestone to aid in validating critical integrated performance, reducing uncertainty and understanding the inherent risk surrounding the development of a brand new rocket,” said former astronaut Susan Helms, an ASAP member.

“This panel was a strong advocate for the Green Run,” she added, “and we’re gratified that NASA has also formally embraced the Green Run milestone as a critical step for the program.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...