Vice President may tell NASA to accelerate lunar landings

One of the panelists who will appear at a National Space Council meeting next Tuesday said to expect “a few fireworks” during the discussion, which will focus on NASA’s efforts to return humans to the Moon. The meeting of this council that oversees US spaceflight policy will be held in Hunstville, Ala.

, and led by Vice President Mike Pence.

University of Colorado Boulder astrophysicist Jack Burns, one of six speakers scheduled for the meeting, said the current timeline for NASA to send humans to the Moon lacks urgency. NASA has talked about landing its astronauts on the Moon before the end of the 2020s, and the president’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year allows for this to happen as early as 2028.

“The timeline is too slow, and that’s one of the things that I’m going to be talking about next Tuesday,” Burns said. If pushed, how soon could NASA put humans back on the Moon? The year 2025, Burns replied. “And I know some in the administration would like to do it even faster than that,” he added. “We’re going to see a few fireworks.”

These comments are consistent with murmurings in space-policy circles on Thursday that Pence may issue some kind of charge to NASA that would accelerate lunar landings to the mid-2020s and potentially even 2024. That would be the final year of a Trump presidency, were he to win a second term in office. Ars could not confirm these rumors, and a spokeswoman for the National Space Council declined to provide additional information.

2028, too late

Several sources have previously told Ars that Pence is dissatisfied with the pace at which NASA is progressing back toward the Moon. For example, when he and Trump came into the White House in 2017, NASA was targeting 2019 for a test launch for the Space Launch System rocket. Now that is not likely to occur before 2021.

Pence is being encouraged to go faster by confidants, too. In November, an advisory group to the National Space Council received an earful from former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who now holds a senior position in the Department of Defense and remains influential in space policy.

“I think 2028 is so late-to-need that it doesn’t even need to be on the table,” Griffin said of NASA’s Moon plans. “Such a date does not demonstrate that the United States is a leader in anything. This is 2018. It took us eight years to get to the Moon the first time, and you’re going to tell me it takes 10 to 12 to 14 to do it again when we know how?”

There are six panelists at the National Space Council meeting Tuesday, and Burns said he anticipates hearing a similar message of urgency from most if not all of the participants. “We’re tired of generating PowerPoint journeys that don’t go anywhere, and it’s time to actually go some place,” said Burns, who served from 2016-2017 on the presidential NASA transition team. “I would just say the hearing we’re doing on Tuesday is all about that. It’s all focused on that.”

Culture change

Burns said NASA would need an “adequate” budget to bring a lunar landing date forward, particularly for the development of the landers themselves. However, he noted that the agency’s budget has already increased under the Trump administration. In fiscal year 2015, the NASA budget was about $18 billion, and it rose to $21.5 billion for the current fiscal year.

He also said the administration is intent on instilling a sense of urgency at NASA, and fostering a “culture change” that will prod the bureaucratic agency to recapture some of the energy and vigor it had during the Apollo program in the 1960s.

Some of that vigor may come from the private sector, both through newer companies like SpaceX as well as larger aerospace firms like Lockheed Martin that would like to see greater progress in spaceflight, Burns said. He noted that Lockheed has said its lunar lander derived from the Orion spacecraft could be ready for human landings by 2025.

From Burns’ perspective, at least, an accelerated lunar return is compatible with NASA’s existing plans, including development of a small outpost near the Moon called the Lunar Gateway. The plan, however, would need to have a greater emphasis on commercial rockets. The Space Launch System rocket would focus on launching crew, aboard the Orion spacecraft, into lunar orbit. But elements of the Gateway and the lunar lander components would primarily be launched on less-costly private rockets such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or Blue Origin’s New Glenn.

All options

NASA’s new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has already signaled his intent to make good on some of this urgency. Last week, he said the agency would explore launching a uncrewed flight of the Orion spacecraft around the Moon next year by using two private rockets. This was due to ongoing delays with the Space Launch System.

“I think we as an agency need to stick to our commitment,” Bridenstine said at a Senate hearing. “If we tell you and others that we’re going to launch in June of 2020 around the Moon, I think we should launch around the Moon in June of 2020.”

And on Thursday, reported that the agency is considering skipping a critical test that is part of the large Space Launch System rocket’s development plan. Before the first rocket launches, NASA had planned to send the entire core stage of the rocket, with its four engines, to Stennis Space Center for a “Green Run” test firing, including an eight-minute burn that would mimic the rocket’s ascent into orbit. This process would have taken about six months.

Now, the agency is considering whether to skip that test entirely in favor of just a short, five-second test firing on the launchpad at Kennedy Space Center. This would increase the risk of some kind of problem during launch but shave as much as six months from the development timeline. This is another indication of the Trump administration’s desire to assess all avenues for accelerating NASA’s spaceflight programs.

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