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



  signing ceremony

President Trump signs the Space Policy Directive 1 last month, formally ordering NASA to return humans to the Moon. However, the directive offered few details on how to do it. (credit: NASA / Aubrey Gemignani)




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

What was true then is more like that today. NASA has been actively pursuing three programs for manned spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit: the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft and, most recently, the Deep Space Access Gate. But progress in these three programs has been slow largely due to inadequate funding.

Given the current funding level of NASA and all of these programs, progress is condemned to move at a snail's pace, or even slower. But what about a big increase in NASA's budget to support all these programs? This is an impossible dream.

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

Given the current funding level of NASA and all of these programs, progress is condemned to move at a snail's pace, or even slower. But what about a big increase in NASA's budget to support all these programs? This is an impossible dream. According to the Joint Tax Committee of Congress, the tax cuts just approved by Congress will add $ 1 trillion to the national debt, even after allowing the economic growth generated by the tax cuts. And, during the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump stated that improving the nation's infrastructure would take precedence over NASA's budget increase.

The only hope for an effective human spaceflight program beyond Earth's low orbit lies in the cancellation of some of the programs on the NASA plate. Of the four programs of human space flights beyond the Earth's orbit that are actively pursued, which is the most essential? My opinion is that President Trump's new initiative to return astronauts to the Moon should be the top priority.

Several studies, such as the 2015 Evolvable Lunar Architecture study, have shown that human presence on the Moon is affordable if done in the right way. That is, a lunar program should be established as a private public association, such as the commercial orbital transport services program (COTS), which is used to supply cargo to the International Space Station. A lunar COTS program would use commercial launch vehicles and spacecraft, Space Law Agreements and fixed price contracts. Such a program would encourage innovation and exploit competition to reduce costs and provide redundancy should a failure marginalize the launch vehicle or spacecraft of a company.

A lunar COTS program would use commercial launch vehicles and spacecraft, Space Law Agreements and fixed price contracts. Such a program would encourage innovation and exploit competition to reduce costs and provide redundancy.

It is interesting to speculate on what private industry could offer in a lunar COTS competition. SpaceX has already announced its intention to use its Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) for lunar missions. The BFR is a fully reusable super heavy launch vehicle. Eventually, SpaceX plans to eliminate the use of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, which are less capable, 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 loading capacity of the launch vehicle increases. The BFR also allows an increase in the diameter of the payload (nine meters against five meters for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy) that will benefit a lunar COTS program. And BFR is also very suitable for human missions to asteroids and Mars.

Blue Origin could offer its New Glenn launch vehicle for a lunar COTS program. The initial launch of New Glenn is planned for the year 2020. However, to better compete with SpaceX, Blue Origin is likely to propose its New Armstrong launch vehicle. Details about the New Armstrong rocket and its development schedule have not yet been published, but Jeff Bezos has made it clear that he will be considerably 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 also expressed interest in developing a lunar lander called Blue Moon.

United Launch Alliance would probably offer its Vulcan rocket for a lunar COTS program. Vulcan will have a much lower load capacity than the BFR rocket from SpaceX and the New Armstrong rocket from Blue Origin, which makes it more difficult to compete effectively for lunar applications. ULA has announced plans to eventually reuse the engine compartment of the first stage of the Vulcan. They also plan to develop a new upper stage called Advanced Cryogenic Developed Stage (ACES), which will eventually replace the upper stage of the Centaur. ACES can be refueled in the space, and in this way each stage of ACES can be reused several times. ULA has also been collaborating with Masten Space Systems to develop a lunar lander called Xeus.

What about the SLS, Orion and Deep Space Gateway? None of these programs is necessary for the main purpose of returning humans to the lunar surface. All three of these programs should be canceled. Make no mistake: although money will be saved if the lunar return program is done in the right way with public-private partnerships, it will still be costly. And your money does not have NASA unless the agency cancels unnecessary programs.

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

The Deep Space Gateway is NASA's plan for a small space station manned by humans in orbit around or in the vicinity of the Moon. But now that the astronauts will return to the lunar surface, much of the logic of the Deep Space Gate no longer exists. It would be a costly deviation from the main objective of returning humans to the lunar surface.

If NASA continues with all its existing programs of human space flights in Earth orbit, there will not be enough funds for President Trump's new initiative to return humans to the Moon. Progress would advance at a glacial pace, and the entire program would risk being canceled by a future administration.

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

The change of administration and, soon, a new administrator of NASA provide an exceptional opportunity to update and improve NASA's human spaceflight plans. If NASA continues with all of its existing manned spaceflight programs beyond Earth's orbit, there will not be enough funds for President Trump's new initiative to return humans to the Moon. Progress would advance at a glacial pace, and the entire program would be in danger of cancellation by a future administration, as happened with the Constellation program in 2010. But if the Trump administration has the wisdom to cancel the programs of pork barrels not needed to return 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 what course the Trump Administration takes.


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