During a hearing on the House subcommittee on Wednesday, they outlined a battle for the future of NASA's Artemis Moon program. Yet it was not a guerrilla fight over whether the Republican White House plans to land the moon by 2024 or should not happen. Instead, some members of the two political parties have questioned how the space agency plans to run the Artemis program.
These members, including Oklahoma Democratic Party Representative and committee chair Kendra Horn, as well as Alabama Republican Representative Mo Brooks, were particularly skeptical of the private rockets in their comments and questions during the hearing. They also pressured NASA on why the agency is not moving faster with the development of a powerful second-stage upgrade for the Space Launch System. This "Exploration Upper Stage" would increase the amount of mass the rocket could send to the moon from 26 tons to 37 tons.
Wednesday's hearing was remarkable because it seems to be escalating in an intense lobbying battle going on behind the scenes. from some counterparties ̵
In an effort to land people on the moon by 2024, NASA has decided to have a "mixed fleet" approach to building systems in lunar orbit over the next five years
According to these plans, human crews will will launch a rocket at NASA's space launch system that will propel the Orion spacecraft and its crew to the Moon's Moon Gate. Prior to this mission, at the end of 2024, commercial missiles would launch elements of this gateway, as well as land components that would carry people from the gateway down to the surface of the moon.
According to the Space Agency, this plan balances the lower costs and capabilities of private rockets such as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy vehicle, along with the heavier lift capacity of the larger SLS rocket. NASA is also worried that enough SLS missiles cannot be built between now and 2024 to support the Artemis program, so the agency wants to support its manifesto with private reusable missiles.
However, in recent weeks, there has been a rebate from the traditional aerospace industry. She publicly launched an option in The Hill by Doug Cooke, a former NASA contributor who helped oversee the design and early development of the SLS rocket. In his article, Cook states that the fastest and safest way for NASA to land people on the moon is to ignore commercial launchers, bypass the Gateway, and accelerate the development of the upstream phase of the study.
This will allow the agency to accommodate an entire lander on an SLS start, similar to the Apollo program in the 1960s. "Instead of relying on a successful Apollo model, NASA aims to deviate as a result of three arbitrary restrictions," Cook wrote. One is the requirement to use commercial missiles. "Apparently, under pressure from commercial launch vendors who need additional launches to fill their manifests, NASA is aiming to break the moon lander into several pieces so that they can fit into less powerful commercial launches installations that increase risk and limit architecture, "Cook wrote.
NASA pushes back
During a hearing Wednesday, acting NASA Chief of Human Research (and former astronaut) Ken Bowersox disagreed with the feature, saying there was no such pressure. " Nobody drives us," he said. "We came to these conclusions on our own. The big driver is flexibility. We want to have multiple options. We don't want to rely on just one system. We would like to have other systems."
A NASA administration source also told Ars after the hearing: "The development of the upper stage of the study was deliberately delayed in order to focus on the main stage." This is the first phase of a large rocket that cost the space agency nearly $ 10 billion. The US Government Accountability Office has criticized both NASA's management of the main stage contract and the performance of prime contractor Boeing, calling for both a delay and an increase in costs. This initial version of the SLS rocket, with no improved upper stage, is now unlikely to take off until at least 2021.
The Trump White House inherited these longstanding problems with the SLS rocket, which Congress ordered the agency to design and build nearly a decade ago. . Continued problems with the SLS rocket led, at least in part, to the ousting of longtime human space flight chief William Gerstenmeyer by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein in July.
Bridestin decided it was best to focus his efforts on flying the main stage as fast as possible. Three SLS rockets by 2024 are probably all Boeing can handle because of "performance issues" cited several times by Bowersox during Wednesday's hearing. This third flight will end with the moon landing at the lunar south pole.
The NASA chief also defended the development of the gateway as a critical component of the "sustainable" return of the moon. Instead of mimicking the Apollo Flags and Imprints missions of half a century ago, NASA would rather return to the moon to stay and eventually send humans to Mars using the Gateway as a stage.
A former NASA employee, Cook is now a consultant who has staked positions that support Boeing and his contracts for the SLS and Upper Stage Exploration main stage. He appears to have made political interventions with the argument that he is now spending more money to develop Explore Upper Stage rather than commercial missiles. " I think the pressure to reach trade opportunities and achieve that goal makes us do things that are at higher risk," Cook said during Wednesday's hearing. It was not at all surprising to see Mo Brooks, an Alabama representative supporting Boeing and the SLS rocket – developed in his state at the Marshall Space Center – supporting Cooke's argument.
He reads from Cook's option during Wednesday's hearing.
Surprisingly, Horn and others during the hearing also found themselves shaken by Cook's view that circumventing commercial missiles and the Gateway would lead to a simpler and faster lunar mission. "I believe it matters in the development of trading opportunities," she said at the end of the hearing. However, she added: "I am concerned that decisions are not guided by what is most effective or efficient and what is. This is an interesting point of view, given that commercial rockets cost $ 100 million to $ 200 million, much to the tune of $ 1 billion to $ 2 billion in costs for an SLS rocket – not including hundreds of millions of dollars – at a minimum, the agency will need to invest in Explore Upper Stage development contracts with Boeing. In addition, one of the commercial missiles – the Falcon Heavy – already exists and has completed three successful missions. Other boosters, including the powerful New Glenn Blue Blue rocket, should be ready to fly in two or three years. An SLS rocket with a better upper stage will almost certainly not be ready by 2024, and NASA knows that.
"At this point, there is no path by which the upper stage of the study could be ready for Artemis 3 in 2024," a NASA administration source told Ars. "Therefore, it is not in the critical path (for the moon landing. "
Boeing Power Play?
Two sources familiar with this nascent battle say it looks like Boeing's calculation of the role it can play in Artemis Moon's landing campaign. two main parts of the Lunar Gateway, its powerful and propulsive element and module for small habitats are assigned respectively but to Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman, it is therefore unlikely that Boeing will play a major role in the development of the Gateway, at least at this time.
Meanwhile, with his existing work on the SLS main stage and the upper stage, the Starliner vehicle for commercial crew and a management contract for the International Space Station, Boeing may not be able to win any of the landing system contracts, NASA is also seeking to build between now and 2024, these sources said. This bidding process is already underway.
It appears that Boeing has decided to push hard for more funding in the upstream phase of the study, which would hamper the Gateway at a minimum and also damage its trading competitors in the startup business, it is noteworthy that during Wednesday's hearing Cook also transferred another potential space business line for the company, suggesting that one contractor should probably be responsible for integrating the entire SLS rocket.
"It's not just the main stage, it's boosters and engines," Cook said. "NASA is currently the integrator. If you want to get a fixed launch vehicle price, I think it would be better to combine that with a master contract when the owner of the master contract has control over all processes and can lead to to some of these effective results. "It remained unmentioned that Boeing, who manages the main stage and Explore Upper Stage, would be that main performer.