Alabama space center will manage NASA’s lunar lander program

On Friday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will visit the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. At 3pm local time, he will address employees in an “all hands” meeting in Morris Auditorium to make an announcement regarding the space agency’s Artemis program to land humans on the Moon by 2024.

According to multiple sources, Bridenstine plans to announce that the Alabama-based field center will manage the program to develop the lunar lander for the Moon program.

In political terms, this is a big win for the center, which has powerful congressional backing in both the US Senate as well as the House of Representatives. (Employees were, umm, strongly encouraged to attend the meeting).

As part of the carefully negotiated agreement, Marshall will have responsibility for the overall program as well as two elements of what is planned to be a three-stage lander. The center in northern Alabama will oversee commercial development of the Transfer Element—planned to ferry the lander from the Lunar Gateway down to low-lunar orbit—as well as the Descent Element that will fly down to the surface.

This program will be led by Lisa Watson-Morgan, a senior engineer at the center who, according to sources in both Texas and Alabama, has an excellent reputation and is seen as a good manager.

Meanwhile, the Houston, Texas-based Johnson Space Center will oversee development of the Ascent Element. This is the lunar lander’s most sophisticated element, as it is where astronauts will live and work during the trip down to the lunar surface, on the Moon, and during the journey back to the Lunar Gateway. As previously announced, Johnson Space Center will also manage development of the Gateway, a small space station planned for development in a distant orbit around the Moon.

The announcement comes as Bridenstine continues to try to build momentum for the Artemis Program, which he says needs an extra $1.6 billion from Congress in the coming fiscal year. So far, neither the Senate nor House has provided this funding in their proposed budgets, although there is still time for that to change.

A long history

There is a long history of rivalry between the Alabama and Texas centers, although on an engineering level they work together fairly well. During the Apollo program, the lines were clear-cut, with Marshall bearing responsibility for the Saturn V rocket, while Houston managed the Apollo spacecraft and Lunar Module that took two crew members down to the surface.

The relationship became more complex during the development and execution of the space shuttle program. After the space shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, some officials at each center sought to blame the other for problems with the O-rings on the shuttle’s side-mounted boosters, for which the Alabama center had responsibility. (Put very simply, those in Houston blamed Alabama managers for ignoring the potential problem, while Alabama officials pointed the finger at the shuttle’s overall program management in Houston.)

In recent years, as Texas has lost key benefactors in Congress who had helped ensure its influence in human spaceflight—Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and US Rep. John Culberson were especially big losses—the center has ceded some of its ground. For example, at the outset of the commercial crew program to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, overall management for that office went to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center rather than the self-styled home of human spaceflight in Houston. Now, it is losing control of the lunar lander program, which it had during the Apollo program in the 1960s.

The agreement is something of a political gamble for both centers, as there is no guarantee that either the Lunar Gateway or Lunar Lander programs will ultimately survive beyond the next year or two. Although Bridenstine has publicly defended the Gateway as an essential part of NASA’s return to the Moon, he recently fired a major proponent of the Gateway, William Gerstenmaier, as chief of the agency’s human spaceflight program. The White House’s Office of Management and Budget has been trying to kill the space station.

As for the lunar lander, it is a priority of the Trump administration. It is possible that, if a different president were to come into office in 2021, NASA’s priorities may be reset toward Mars rather than the Moon, or more narrowly focused on studying Earth and helping to solve the climate change issue.

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