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Some NASA contractors seem to be trying to kill the Lunar Gateway



  NASA concept artwork for exploration of Upper Stage with the Orion spacecraft
Enlarge / NASA concept artwork for exploration of Upper Stage with the Orion spacecraft

NASA

During a hearing Wednesday's House Space subcommittee revealed the outlines of a fight for the future of NASA's Artemis Moon program. However, it was not a partisan fight whether the plan of the Republican White House to land people on the moon by 2024 or not. Instead, some members of both political parties asked how the space agency wanted to implement the Artemis program.

These members, including the Oklahoma Democratic representative and committee chair Kendra Horn, as well as the Republican representative of Alabama, Mo Brooks, were particularly skeptical about privacy in their comments and questions during the hearing. They also urged NASA why the agency is not moving faster with the development of a powerful second-tier upgrade for the Agency's Rocket Space Launch System. This "Exploration Upper Stage" would increase the amount of mass that could send the rocket to the moon from 26 tons to 37 tons.

The Wednesday hearing was notable as it appears to be an escalation in an intense backstage lobbying effort by some contractors ̵

1; most likely led by Boeing – to kill the NASA's proposed Lunar Gateway and instead fund Exploration Upper Stage to accelerate.

A Mixed Fleet

In its effort to land humans on the moon by 2024, NASA has opted for a "mixed fleet" approach to building systems in the lunar orbit over the next five years.

According to these plans, human crews would launch NASA's Rocket Space Launch System, which would propel the spacecraft Orion and its crew into a lunar orbit to the Moon. Before this manned mission in late 2024, commercial elements of this gateway and components of the lander were fired using commercial missiles, transporting humans from the gateway to the lunar surface.

According to the space agency, this plan is intended to offset the lower cost and capabilities of private rockets such as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy vehicle with the higher capacity of the larger SLS rocket. NASA also fears that enough SLS missiles can not be built by 2024 to support the Artemis program, and the agency wants to underpin its manifesto with reusable private rockets.

In recent weeks, however, there has been a setback from the traditional aerospace industry. Publicly, it began with a commentary by Doug Cooke, a former NASA administrator who assisted in monitoring the design and early development of the SLS rocket, in The Hill . In his article, Cooke, the fastest and safest way for NASA to land people on the moon, argued that ignoring commercial launchers, bypassing the gateway, and accelerating the development of the Upper Stage exploration whole lander into a single SLS. Start, similar to the Apollo program in the 1960s. "Instead of resorting to the successful Apollo model, NASA is instructed to deviate due to three arbitrary constraints," Cooke wrote. One of them is the requirement to use commercial rockets. "Apparently, under the pressure of commercial launch vehicle providers requiring additional launches to fill their manifests, NASA will be instructed to divide the lunar module into several parts to fit less powerful commercial launch vehicles, increasing the risk and architecture limits, "Cooke wrote.

NASA Withdrawal

During Wednesday's hearing, Ken Bowersox, acting chief of NASA's reconnaissance agency (and former astronaut), disapproved of this characterization and said there was no such pressure. " Nobody drives us," he said. "We came to these conclusions alone, a big driver is flexibility, we want to have multiple options, we do not just want to rely on one system, we want different systems."

A source from the NASA administration told Ars after the hearing, "The development of the upper exploration stage has been deliberately slowed to focus on the core stage." This refers to the first stage of the big rocket, which cost the space agency nearly $ 10 billion. The US Government Accountability Office criticized both NASA's core contract management and prime contractor Boeing's performance, calling for both delays and cost increases. It is unlikely that this original version of the SLS rocket will fly without the improved upper stage before at least 2021.

Trump's White House inherited these long-standing problems with the SLS rocket, which was to be designed and built by Congress almost a decade ago. The continuing problems with the SLS rocket in July led at least in part to the overthrow of the longtime chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. The NASA boss has since tried to get the program going again.

Bridenstine has decided that it is best to focus efforts on getting the core stage up and running as fast as possible. Three SLS missile flights by 2024 are likely anything Boeing can handle due to "performance issues" that Bowersox cited several times during the Wednesday hearing. This third flight would culminate in the moon landing at the Moon South Pole.

The NASA chief also defended the development of the gateway as a critical component of a "sustainable" return to the moon. Instead of imitating Apollo's "Flag and Footprint" missions of half a century ago, NASA wants instead to return to the Moon to stay and finally send people to Mars, using the Gateway as a starting point.

Political Pressure

Cooke, a former NASA official, is now a consultant who has filled positions supporting Boeing and its contracts for the SLS core phase and the Exploration Upper Stage. He seems to have made policy advances in his argument that he now spends more on developing Upper Stage exploration than commercial launch vehicles. " I think the pressure to develop commercial skills and drive that goal leads us to do things that are more risky," Cooke said at the Wednesday hearing.

It was not surprising to see Mo Brooks, an Alabama representative who supported Boeing and the SLS rocket and was developed in his state at the Marshall Space Flight Center, supports Cooke's argument. He read from Cooke's comment during the hearing on Wednesday.

What was surprising was that Horn and others at the hearing seemed to be influenced by Cook's view that bypassing commercial rockets and the gateway would result in a simpler and faster moon mission. "I think it makes sense to develop commercial skills," she said at the end of the hearing. She added, "I'm worried that decisions will not depend on what's most efficient or effective, and what's most cost-effective."

This is an interesting point of view, as commercial missiles do not exceed 100 to 200 Millions of dollars, compared to the cost of $ 1 to $ 2 billion for a single SLS missile – hundreds of millions not included The agency would need to invest at least USD in exploration Upper Stage development contracts with Boeing The commercial missile – the Falcon Heavy – has flown three successful missions, and other boosters, including Blue Origin's powerful New Glenn missile, should be operational in two or three years, with a SLS missile at the upper secondary level by 2024 almost certainly not ready, and NASA knows that.

"At this point, there is no way the di e Exploration Upper Stage 2024 will be ready for Artemis 3. "That's why it's not on the critical path (for the moon landing)."

Boeing Power Game?

Two sources familiar with this emerging battle claim it is a calculation by Boeing of the role it could play in the Artemis Moon landing campaign: Maxar Technologies and Northrop Grumman have been awarded contracts for two large parts of the Lunar Gateway, namely its propulsion and propulsion unit and its small Habitat module is therefore unlikely to play a significant role in the development of the gateway, at least at this time.

In the meantime, existing work on the SLS core and advanced levels, the Starliner vehicle for commercial crew, and the A management contract has been concluded For the International Space Station, Boeing may not be well positioned to take any of the jobs for the human Lan Desystem, which NASA also wants to build by 2024. The tendering process is now underway.

It appears that Boeing has therefore decided to step up its efforts to fund Exploration Upper Stage, which would damage the gateway with minimal delay and also to the commercial competitors in the launch business. At the Wednesday hearing, Cooke also launched another potential space business business for the company, suggesting that a contractor should probably be responsible for integrating the entire SLS rocket.

"It's not just the core phase, it's boosters and motors." Cooke said. "NASA is currently the integrator.If you want to get a fixed price for a launcher, it seems to me better to combine them under a master contract, where the owner of the main contract has control of all the processes and can get some of those efficiency gains It remained unspoken that Boeing, which manages the core phase and the exploration Upper Stage, would be this "prime contractor".


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