NASA head answers agency questions about ‘Moon by 2024’ goal
In a town hall meeting at NASA headquarters, Administrator Jim Bridenstine answered some of the agency’s most-pressing questions regarding the recent challenge by the vice president to return humans to the Moon by 2024.
Among the top questions submitted via an online form for the April 1 meeting, the biggest questions NASA employees had were about funding and support by the U.S. Congress to meet the stated 2024 deadline set by Vice President Mike Pence during the fifth meeting of the National Space Council on March 26, 2019.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Bridenstine said during a live broadcast of the town hall. “I hope everybody here takes that away. This is an opportunity for people in this room, and people watching from across the agency to say where you were when your talking to your grandchildren or your great-grandchildren. This opportunity before us is something we haven’t had in a very long time, saying ‘we’re going to go to the Moon and we’re going to go within five years.’ In fact, its never happened before.”
Bridenstine said even President Kennedy in 1961 gave a deadline beyond the longest he could have served in office. It was, in fact, two presidents later during the Richard Nixon administration when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969. The administrator said the fact that the Trump administration challenged NASA to do it within the president’s potential second term means it is “a very serious proposal.”
Same plan, but scaled back
From the town hall meeting, it appears the plan NASA has to return humans to the Moon in five years is essentially a scaled-back version of what the organization was already planning to do by 2028. It would involve the long-delayed Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, an initial version of the Lunar Gateway and a three-stage human landing system.
For the first human landing in 2024, the baseline plan is to launch SLS with a crewed Orion and a lunar ascent vehicle (possibly built for only two people) and rendezvous with a partially-completed Lunar Gateway, which Bridenstine has described as a “reusable command module.”
At the Gateway, there would already be in place a fully-fueled transfer vehicle and an expendable descent vehicle. These would likely have been built and put in place by commercial companies and commercial rockets.
Once at the Gateway, the ascent vehicle would dock with the descent and transfer vehicles to take a crew to the south pole of the Moon. The transfer vehicle would take the descent and ascent vehicles to low-Lunar orbit before returning to the Gateway, while the descent vehicle would continue to the lunar surface.
After the surface mission is over, the astronauts would launch in the ascent vehicle all the way back to the Gateway. The ascent vehicle and transfer vehicle would await a refueling ship, likely commercially built, while a new descent stage would be launched for the next human mission.
Meanwhile, the crew would board Orion and leave the Gateway to return to Earth.
Things need to start soon
Bridenstine said if NASA is to land on the Moon by 2024, then contracts have to be created “very, very soon.” He also said it means the development schedule for SLS will have to be accelerated by removing any test that isn’t necessary.
Additionally, Bridenstine said accelerating schedules means developing in parallel, rather than in series. He cited the engine section of the SLS as an example of an item in the critical path. It’s taking longer to develop than expected and other items down the road are being held up as a result.
The sections of the core stage of SLS are designed to be stacked vertically, but that can’t be accomplished until the engine section is done. So, rather than wait, Bridenstine said NASA has already ordered equipment to assemble the core stage horizontally. This would allow the sections to be completed while work continues on the engine section.
While a June 2020 launch of SLS isn’t expected to be achievable, it is hoped these changes will increase development time to allow the Exploration Mission-1 flight to happen as soon as possible. EM-1 is designed to be a test flight of Orion, with the European service module, around the Moon before returning to Earth at a lunar re-entry velocity.
However more money will likely be required as the Moon by 2024 plan is expected to require a new upper stage for SLS, the Exploration Upper Stage, which still needs to be developed and flown. That new SLS will also need a new Mobile Launch Tower, which still needs to be built.
More money and consensus
All of this requires money, likely more than the Trump administration initially requested for fiscal year 2020. In fact, that budget request actually decreased funding for SLS and all-but-cancelled the Exploration Upper Stage.
But now NASA says it needs that and more in order to accomplish the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024.
Bridenstine said it is his job to work with the Trump administration, Congress and the Office of Management and Budget to make sure there is broad consensus about particulars of the 2024 goal before going to Congress to request the required funding.
“My goal is to work with all players—all players—within the executive branch, within the House and within the Senate to achieve the end state, which is boots on the Moon by 2024,” Bridenstine said.
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.