Pence calls for NASA to land astronauts on the moon within five years

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2017. Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz

Vice President Mike Pence said Tuesday that NASA should land astronauts near the south pole of the moon within five years “by any means necessary,” calling for “new urgency” in the U.S. space program and sounding a warning for entrenched aerospace contractors to better meet schedule and cost commitments, or else lose work to other companies.

“It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Pence said. “The first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.”

NASA and the Trump administration previously aimed to land astronauts on the moon by 2028. Pence said the National Space Council, which he chairs, will send recommendations to President Trump for a “major course correction” at NASA.

“To accomplish this, we must redouble our efforts,” Pence said.

During his remarks Tuesday at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, near NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Pence singled out the troubled Space Launch System — a heavy-lift rocket in development to launch crews into deep space — as an example of a program “plagued by bureaucratic inertia.”

Development of the Space Launch System is managed at Marshall, which has been the home of NASA’s major rocket propulsion programs since the 1960s.

SLS program managers earlier this month said the rocket’s first flight was likely to be delayed to 2021, the latest in a string of schedule slips since the launcher was unveiled in 2011. At that time, officials said the SLS would be ready for an inaugural launch in 2017.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said March 13 that he ordered engineers to examine whether NASA’s Orion crew capsule, which the SLS is intended to launch, could instead fly around the moon on an unpiloted test flight using a pair of commercial heavy-lift launchers to keep the Orion shakedown mission on track for 2020, and untether it from additional SLS delays.

During Tuesday’s National Space Council meeting — after Pence’s remarks — Bridenstine said he accepted the Trump administration’s challenge to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.

“Our agency, NASA, is going to do everything in its power to meet that vision, to meet that deadline, and you have my full commitment to achieving that,” Bridenstine said during Tuesday’s meeting in Alabama.

In a written statement issued later Tuesday, Bridenstine said NASA will take action in the coming days and weeks to accomplish the lunar landing goal.

“I have already directed a new alignment within NASA to ensure we effectively support this effort, which includes establishing a new mission directorate to focus on the formulation and execution of exploration development activities,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “We are calling it the Moon to Mars Mission Directorate.”

This illustration shows the components of the Space Launch System’s Block 1 configuration, which is the version scheduled to fly on the rocket’s first mission, designated Exploration Mission-1. Credit: NASA

Bridenstine said NASA’s review of commercial launch options, which would have likely included a combination of SpaceX and United Launch Alliance rockets, showed there is an opportunity to use commercial boosters for deep space missions in the future, but that the Space Launch System provides the surest path to achieving a lunar landing by 2024.

“If we want to achieve 2024, we have to have SLS,” Bridenstine said.

But in his speech, Pence cautioned the NASA and its contractors should not assume the Space Launch System is the only path to the moon.

“We must accelerate the SLS program to meet this objective, but know this, the president has directed NASA and Administrator Jim Bridesnteine to accomplish this goal by any means necessary,” Pence said. “In order to succeed … we must focus on the mission over the means. You must consider every available option and platform to meet our goals, including industry, government and the entire American space enterprise. Our administration is committed to this goal.”

Pence continued by expressing commitment to the Marshall Space Flight Center, a facility once helmed by German-American rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, the chief architect of the Saturn 5 moon rocket.

“But to be clear, we’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will,” Pence said. “If American industry can provide critical commercial services without government development, then we’ll buy them. And if commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be.

“Urgency must be our watch word,” Pence said. “Failure to achieve our goal to return an American astronaut to the moon in the next five years is not an option.”

But the Trump administration’s $21 billion fiscal year 2020 budget request for NASA released March 11 proposes a $375 million cut in funding for the Space Launch System, and would defer the introduction of a more powerful SLS upper stage capable of launching Orion crew capsules and modules for a mini-space station in lunar orbit on a single mission.

Before Pence’s announcement Tuesday, NASA planned to first build a space complex in lunar orbit called the Gateway, with contributions from international and commercial partners. NASA envisions the Gateway as a waypoint on the way to the lunar surface, where Orion spaceships with astronauts will dock before departing on lunar landers that can transport crews and cargo between the Gateway and the moon.

NASA officials said then that the White House’s fiscal year 2020 budget request would provide funding to maintain a schedule for a landing by humans on the moon by 2028. Pence’s statements Tuesday did not mention the budget request, details on how much an accelerating lunar landing timeline might cost, or how the Gateway fits into the plan.

The liquid hydrogen tank for the first Space Launch System’s core stage is seen during a recent move at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, after technicians applied orange foam insulation to the tank. Credit: NASA

Much of the delays in the Space Launch System have stemmed from difficulties assembling the rocket’s Boeing-built core stage, which consists, from top to bottom, of a liquid oxygen tank, a liquid hydrogen tank, and an engine compartment holding four RS-25 main engines left over from the space shuttle program.

A report in October by NASA’s inspector general criticized the agency and Boeing for cost and schedule overruns on the 212-foot-tall (64-meter) SLS core stage, which has encountered development problems that previously delayed the first SLS launch date from late 2018 to mid-2020.

Two side-mounted solid-fueled boosters built by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, also derived from shuttle-era designs, will provide additional power at liftoff, giving the SLS around 8.8 million pounds of thrust, 15 percent more than the Saturn 5 rocket used in the Apollo moon program. The 32-story Block 1 version of the SLS, as its initial configuration is designated, will also have an upper stage derived from ULA’s Delta 4 rocket, with a single Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine.

Bridenstine said that the Exploration Upper Stage, which would be deferred if the Trump administration’s budget request is enacted, is vital to returning humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.

“When we talk about being able to co-manifest payloads, we talk about putting humans on a spacecraft with habitation modules at the same time and delivering to the moon all at once, we’re going to need an Exploration Upper Stage, and we’re going to need that probably early, by EM-3, the third launch of the Space Launch System,” Bridenstine said. “There’s a lot to achieve.

“We’re working right now at making sure that every moment of time that we are using to develop SLS and the Orion crew capsule, we are only doing what is absolutely necessary to get to that first launch, and not adding to the mix, whether it’s additional testing, or having serial assembly rather than parallel assembly,” he said. “We are trying to eliminate any extra time in order to get to that first launch as soon as possible.”

Despite warnings by NASA and Boeing program managers that a delay in the first SLS launch to 2021 was likely, Bridenstine told Pence at Tuesday’s National Space Council meeting that he is “confident we can get to the first launch in 2020 for SLS, and actually fly a crew capsule around the moon.”

An SLS/Orion flight around the moon with astronauts on-board would follow by 2022.

Bridenstine did not provide details about how engineers could make up time on the Space Launch System, but Boeing said in a statement that managers now plan to shuffle steps in integrating the core stage at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, while technicians continue working on the engine section, which has caused many of the recent SLS delays.

“We have worked with NASA to design a final assembly production plan that allows the engine section to be worked simultaneously as we join the aft and forward sections of the rocket,” said Patricia Soloveichik, a Boeing spokesperson. “Previously, we were awaiting completion of the engine section, by far the most complex element of the rocket. Under the new plan, we can work both sections concurrently and mate the engine section horizontally, enabling continued processing of all iterations of the rocket.

“In addition, we have streamlined our processes to the essentials for safety and quality, allowing us to move forward with considerable agility and speed,” Soloveichik said in a statement released to Spaceflight Now.

The core stage engine section for the first Space Launch System test flight at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. Credit: NASA/Jude Guidry

NASA said earlier this month that workers have completed most of the outfitting of the core stage engine section, which serves as the structural mounting point for the four main engines, and routes numerous propellant, power and data connections.

The engine section contains more than 500 sensors and 18 miles of cables, according to NASA. Workers attached cork thermal insulation to the outside of the propulsion module before moving it to a different part of the sprawling Michoud factory for further testing and the addition of a boat-tail fairing structure to the bottom of the engine section.

Once the core stage is fully built, ground teams planned to transport the rocket by barge to NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi for an eight-minute test-firing of all four engines, the ship the stage to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launch preparations. Officials from NASA and Boeing did not discuss any changes to that plan Tuesday.

Lawmakers led by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, have long supported the Space Launch System, which NASA estimates will cost around $1 billion per year to operate once development is completed.

Congress approved $2.15 billion for the Space Launch System program in fiscal year 2019, while the Trump administration’s budget request would slash that by $375 million to around $1.78 billion.

Shelby said earlier this month that, in his role as chairman of the appropriations committee, he has “more than a passing interest in what NASA does,” according to a report in Space News.

“I have a little parochial interest, too, in what they do in Huntsville, Alabama,” Shelby continued in an introduction of Marshall center director Jody Singer at a luncheon in Washington. “Jody, you keep doing what you’re doing. We’ll keep funding you.”

But Pence reiterated that NASA and Boeing must pick up the pace with the Space Launch System if the rocket program is going to survive.

“To develop these new technologies, NASA must adopt an all hands on deck approach to procurement, contracts and its partnerships,” Pence said. “If a commercial company can deliver a rocket, a lunar lander, or any other capability faster at a lower cost to the taxpayer than the status quo, then NASA needs to have the authority and the courage to change course quickly and decisively to achieve that goal.”

Boeing said in a statement Tuesday that it is “working relentlessly … to do what is absolutely necessary to support a NASA launch in 2020” and is “committed to supporting the vision outlined by Vice President Pence today.”

“Boeing and NASA have implemented changes in both processes and technologies to accelerate production, without sacrificing safety or quality, and we remain on schedule to deliver the first SLS core stage to NASA by the end of this year,” Boeing said.

“As the commercial launch alternative studies have shown, NASA has affirmed that SLS remains the best approach to achieve our lunar objectives with a reconfirmation of the importance of the Exploration Upper Stage by EM-3,” Boeing said. “SLS is also the world’s only super heavy rocket capable of safely transporting astronauts to deep space with major payloads like landers, habitats and Gateway elements.”

Lockheed Martin, prime contractor for NASA’s Orion crew capsule, said in a statement that its engineers have studied what an accelerated lunar landing schedule would require.

“With the right level of commitment, urgency and resources, humans could walk on the surface by 2024,” the company said.

Artist’s illustration of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and its European-built service module, powered toward the moon by an upper stage engine. Credit: NASA

“Our concept would deploy an early version of the Gateway using only its propulsion module and docking port, which puts the critical enabling elements in lunar orbit as quickly as possible,” Lockheed Martin said. “It would also design the crewed lander around proven avionics, structures and propulsion systems from Orion’s crew and service modules, which are already built for human-rated lunar exploration.”

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, tweeted: “It would be so inspiring for humanity to see humanity return to the moon!”

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is the most powerful launcher currently in service, but it is not capable of sending the Orion spacecraft toward the moon. Musk’s company is also developing a new reusable vehicle for human space travel, with an upper segment known as the Starship and a first stage nicknamed the Super Heavy.

The Starship and Super Heavy would be able to lift more cargo into space than the SLS, and Musk tweeted Tuesday he thinks the Starship could be ready to carry humans to the moon’s surface within five years. As currently conceived, the Starship and Super Heavy would be a launch vehicle, an interplanetary transport vehicle and lander rolled into one.

SpaceX has constructed a prototype of the Starship, called the “hopper,” for vertical takeoff and landing tests at the company’s facility near Brownsville, Texas.

“For sure worth giving it our best shot!” Musk wrote. “Would be great to have a competitive, commercial program to build a moon base that is outcome-oriented (not cost-plus), so you only get paid for safe delivery of cargo.”

NASA’s Space Launch System was born after the Obama administration canceled the over-budget and behind-schedule Constellation moon landing program in 2011. The Obama White House and Congress agreed to salvage the Orion spacecraft from the Constellation program, and retargeted NASA’s human deep space exploration effort toward Mars.

NASA still has a long-term objective of sending astronauts to Mars, but plans to focus on the moon first.

The space agency is just starting work on vehicles to get to the lunar surface, beginning with an initiative to buy rides on new commercial landers. None of the commercial landers have flown in space yet, but NASA hopes to seed the privately-managed lander concepts, similar to the way the government spurred new commercial cargo and crew transport ships for the International Space Station.

The landing site for astronauts’ return to the moon will be near the lunar south pole, Pence said, where scientists have found evidence of water ice on the the floors of craters in permanent shadow. The ice could be harvested and converted into rocket fuel, creating a lunar refueling depot for eventual missions to Mars.

Pence referenced the recent success of China’s robotic Chang’e 4 probe, which achieved the first controlled landing on the far side of the moon in January.

“What we need now is urgency,” Pence said. “Make no mistake about it, we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.

“It’s not just competition against our adversaries, we’re also racing against our worst enemy: complacency,” Pence said.

But it remains an open question how the Trump administration plans to fund the accelerated lunar landing effort. Bridenstine is scheduled to testify in a hearing Wednesday held by the House Appropriations Committee panel responsible for drafting NASA’s budget.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.