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NASA has too much on its plate to return to the Moon

President Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1 last month, formally directing NASA to return humans to the Moon. The directive offered few details about how to do so, however. (credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

In September 2009, the Augustine Committee issued its report reviewing the United States human spaceflight plans. The main finding of this report was that NASA had too much on its plate. In 2009 NASA had the Constellation program, whose primary goal was to return humans to the Moon by 2020. However, the funding to carry out this program was woefully inadequate.

What was true then is more so today. NASA has been actively pursuing three programs for human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit: the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and, more recently, the Deep Space Gateway. But progress on these three programs has been slow in large part due to inadequate funding.

Now a fourth program has just been added, and it’s a big one. Last month President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, adding the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon for “long term exploration and use.” (See “Where, but not how or when”, The Space Review, December 18, 2017.) This new initiative is short on details, but an outpost on or beneath the lunar surface will almost certainly be part of the plan.

Given NASA’s current funding level and all these programs, progress is doomed to proceed at a turtle’s pace, or even slower. But what about a large increase in NASA’s budget to support all these programs? This is a pipe dream. According to Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, the tax cuts just passed by Congress will add $1 trillion to the national debt, even after allowing for economic growth generated by the tax cuts. And, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump declared that improving the nation’s infrastructure would take priority over increasing NASA’s budget.

The only hope for an effective human spaceflight program beyond low Earth orbit lies in cancelling some of the programs on NASA’s plate. Of the four beyond-Earth-orbit human spaceflight programs being actively pursued, which is the most essential? My view is that President Trump’s new initiative of returning astronauts to the Moon should be the top priority.

Several studies, such as the Evolvable Lunar Architecture study from 2015, have shown that human presence on the Moon is affordable if done in the right way. That is, a lunar program should be set up as a public private partnership like the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program used to supply cargo to the International Space Station. A lunar COTS program would utilize commercial launch vehicles and spacecraft, Space Act Agreements, and fixed price contracts. Such a program would encourage innovation, and it would exploit competition to bring down costs and provide redundancy in case a failure sidelines a company’s launch vehicle or spacecraft.

It is of interest to speculate what private industry might offer in a lunar COTS competition. SpaceX has already announced their intention to utilize their Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) for lunar missions. The BFR is a fully-reusable super-heavy-lift launch vehicle. Eventually SpaceX plans to phase out use of their less capable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy and use the BFR exclusively for all launches. This makes sense, since other things being equal, the launch cost per kilogram of payload decreases as the payload capability of the launch vehicle goes up. The BFR also enables an increase in payload diameter (nine meters versus five meters for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy) that will benefit a lunar COTS program. And the BFR is also well suited for human missions to asteroids and to Mars.

Blue Origin might offer their New Glenn launch vehicle for a lunar COTS program. The New Glenn’s initial launch is planned for around 2020. However, to better compete with SpaceX, Blue Origin would likely instead propose their New Armstrong launch vehicle. Details regarding the New Armstrong rocket and its development schedule haven’t been released yet, but Jeff Bezos has made clear that it will be appreciably larger than the New Glenn. The names of these launch vehicles imply that New Glenn is intended for Earth orbit applications and New Armstrong for lunar applications. Blue Origin has also expressed interest in developing a lunar lander called the Blue Moon.

United Launch Alliance would likely offer their Vulcan rocket for a lunar COTS program. Vulcan will have much less payload capability than SpaceX’s BFR rocket and Blue Origin’s New Armstrong rocket, making it harder to compete effectively for lunar applications. ULA has announced plans to eventually reuse the first stage engine compartment of the Vulcan. They are also planning to develop a new upper stage called the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), which will eventually replace the Centaur upper stage. ACES can be refueled in space, and this way each ACES stage could be reused multiple times. ULA has also been collaborating with Masten Space Systems to develop a lunar lander called the Xeus.

What about the SLS, Orion, and the Deep Space Gateway? None of these programs are needed for the primary goal of returning humans to the lunar surface. All three of these programs should be cancelled. Make no mistake: even though money will be saved if the lunar return program is done the right way with public-private partnerships, it will still be expensive. And its money NASA doesn’t have unless the agency cancels unneeded programs.

The SLS and the Orion spacecraft suffer from the defect that they utilize traditional cost-plus contracts and are subject to the strictest requirements of the Federal Acquisition Regulations. As often happens with this type of contract, their launch dates have slipped multiple times and costs have skyrocketed. The SLS also suffers from the additional defect that no part of it is reusable. By contrast, SpaceX’s BFR launch vehicle will carry more payload (150 metric tons to low Earth orbit versus an eventual 130 metric tons for the SLS) and be fully reusable. Initially, the launch cost of the BFR will be less than one tenth the cost of the SLS, but as the system matures the BFR launch cost will be less than one hundredth of the cost of the SLS. And SpaceX’s Dragon 2 spacecraft will have as much capability as the Orion spacecraft at a small fraction of the cost.

The Deep Space Gateway is NASA’s plan for a small human-tended space station in orbit around or in the vicinity of the Moon. But now that astronauts will be returning to the lunar surface, much of the rationale for the Deep Space Gateway is gone. It would be a costly diversion from the primary goal of returning humans to the lunar surface.

Sometime in the future it may make sense to have a propellant depot in lunar orbit, supplied with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants produced from water in the lunar polar regions. But that is not part of the Deep Space Gateway plan, and it is not needed for an initial human presence on the lunar surface. By refueling SpaceX’s BFS (Big Falcon Spaceship, the second stage of the BFR rocket) in high Earth orbit, the BFS will be able to land on and return from the Moon without refueling on the lunar surface or in lunar orbit. Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance could develop similar capabilities.

The change of administration and, soon, a new NASA administrator are providing a rare opportunity to update and improve NASA’s human spaceflight plans. If NASA continues all its existing beyond-Earth-orbit human spaceflight programs, there won’t be enough funding for President Trump’s new initiative to return humans to the Moon. Progress would proceed at a glacial pace, and the whole program would be in danger of cancellation by a future administration, as happened to the Constellation program in 2010. But if the Trump administration has the wisdom to cancel the pork barrel programs not needed for returning astronauts to the Moon, then a human landing there could occur before the end of President Trump’s second term in office. Time will tell which course the Trump Administration takes.


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