NASA chief reminds Congress they’re the ones not funding a lunar lander


Enlarge / Bill Nelson was confirmed by the United States Senate to become administrator of NASA on April 30.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the space agency expects a decision from the United States Government Accountability Office on a lunar lander demonstration by August 4.

Nelson’s comments came in response to members of the U.S. Science, Space and Technology Committee asking for clarification on Artemis, which NASA intends to use to send humans back to the moon and possibly go to Mars.

“I will have a plan to announce,” Nelson said, referring to the specifics of Artemis and the calendar of protests.

Later, US Representative Bill Foster (D-Ill.) Asked if this plan would include a “resourceful” schedule and budget for the Artemis program, and Nelson replied, “Yes, sir.”

This would represent an important step forward for Artemis, as resource loading is a formal process whereby a schedule incorporates cost, schedule and risk. This requires communication between agency management, program managers and cost estimators and ultimately allows for more informed decision making. This would signal Congress that the Artemis program has concrete plans and goals rather than existing only as a PowerPoint presentation.

The protestation

In mid-April, NASA selected SpaceX to conduct a “demonstration” mission of its Starship vehicle as a human moon landing system. This crewed flight would take place no earlier than 2024.

NASA based its decision, in part, on cost. “We looked at what is the best value for the government,” said Kathy Lueders, head of the human exploration program for NASA at the time.

The move was quickly followed by protests from the other two bidders for the Human Landing System contract, a “national team” led by Blue Origin and another team led by Dynetics. “NASA made a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute,” Blue Origin said in a statement accompanying its sealed protest.

Nelson was confirmed as a NASA administrator after the contract award was announced and after the protests were filed. Nelson later said he supported NASA’s award of the contract to SpaceX, but would also respect the US GAO’s decision on the protest.

Budget

One of the big questions before Congress is whether to fully fund the human landing system, the remaining key technology needed to return humans to the moon. NASA has requested $ 3.3 billion in fiscal 2021 to begin development of two landers. Congress provided only $ 850 million for this year’s budget.

As a result, NASA said it only had enough funds for one lander and chose what it considered the cheapest and most technically ready option: SpaceX’s Starship vehicle. Nelson said he would love to have competition in the lander program, but, he said, “It will be up to you all.” In other words, if Congress appropriates significantly more funds for a lunar lander program for the 2022 budget, then NASA will be able to support the development of two lunar landers.

Several members of Congress have tried to oppose this idea. Brian Babin (R-Texas) noted that the Biden administration only requested $ 1.2 billion in the president’s recent 2022 budget request for a human landing system. This is only about a third of the amount requested by the White House in the 2021 budget. “Once you dig into the details, some worrying themes emerge,” Babin said of NASA’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2022, suggesting that it was really the White House that was not committed to Artemis.

But Nelson had none of that. “Congress has allocated $ 850 million,” Nelson told Babin. “And so you can only get a certain number of pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag. If you’re all generous… then we’ll try to increase it.”

So, until NASA receives more money – beyond the budget request of $ 1.2 billion for the next fiscal year – it will have to move forward with its current plan.

Security of commercial spaces

Another theme during the hearing was whether private companies, such as SpaceX, could develop vehicles that are safe enough for human spaceflight. Nelson noted that SpaceX is already doing this with its Crew Dragon vehicle in low Earth orbit. Even though NASA buys spaceflight as a service rather than owning the systems, the agency still has adequate safety oversight, he said.

But can we count on private companies to provide this service beyond low earth orbit? That’s what Jamaal Bowman (DN.Y.) wanted to know. He cited the Apollo program (and NASA’s development of Apollo rockets and spacecraft) as a model that Artemis should emulate.

Nelson kindly pushed that back as well. “In the Apollo program, we went to the moon with American companies,” Nelson said. “They did all the work. NASA supervised it. NASA had a reason to supervise it, because the responsibility of NASA is to make sure it is safe. We just pursue this in a different way. . “

Nelson also reiterated that NASA is committed to developing the human landing system with fixed price contracts, which should lead to shorter lead times and lower costs.


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