Thursday, March 28, 2019

If NASA is Putting US Boots on the Moon by 2024, Who Will Pay for the Lunar Gateway and Space Launch System?

          By Chuck Black

It's worth noting that very few large government or private sector organizations ever announce new initiatives unless they're having trouble raising enough money to build the consensus needed for the previous plan.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just the way the world works.

It's also worth noting that, in Canada at least, our space program has recently tied its future to approximately $2Bln CDN of new funding over the next twenty-four years to construct an AI turbocharged next generation Canadarm for the NASA led Lunar Gateway.

The Gateway is one of two major US programs which could very well end up delayed or on the chopping block to fund this latest, boots on the Moon, US initiative. Or worse, each individual program could continue but no single program would ever receive enough of a budget to ever accomplish something.

That would be kinda like how things are now.

US President Trump. Photo c/o Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.
As outlined in the March 27th, 2019 Forbes post, "'Get Americans On The Moon In 5 Years' - VP Mike Pence Challenges NASA," the US VP called for "American astronauts to be back on the Moon within the next five years," during a speech at the Huntsville AL based US Space and Rocket Center, a space focused museum operated by the government of Alabama on Tuesday.

According to the post:
Pence said that NASA should be getting boots on the ground at the Moon’s South Pole “by any means necessary”. 
“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,” he said. “The first woman and the next man on the moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets from American soil.”
Pence even suggested that the US astronauts should land near the Moon's south pole, which would make it easier to explore for water and the other astronaut consumables needed to set up permanent facilities.

But without an approved FY 2019 funding package the US VP is only using his political capital and public speaking skills to put together the consensus needed to either approve or change the existing FY 2019 NASA budget request into something which can be approved.

Given that, his announcement should be taken with a grain of salt. Only when the final NASA budget is approved will anyone have any real idea of what NASA will be doing this year.

And then next year, everyone starts over.

It's hard to defund or wind-down a Federal government program once its been rolled-out. As outlined in the March 14th, 2019 post, "NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) is Officially in Trouble," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine promised, earlier this month, to investigate replacing the very expensive and terribly behind schedule first orbital launch of the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) with two, far less expensive, already operational rockets supplied by commercial launch providers. But, as noted in the March 15th, 2019 post, "Bridenstine Reassures SLS/Orion Workforce That They're Still Needed," the NASA Administrator began backtracking on his statements the very next day. Just over a week later, as noted in the March 26th, 2019 post, "Commercial Alternatives to SLS for EM-1 Rejected," things were back to normal and the SLS program was back on track. Whether or not the now back-to-normal program ever accomplishes anything substantive is another question entirely. Graphic c/o SpacePolicyOnline.

Other commentators have also noted that this latest of many hard turns in space policy is still tentative and mostly unsustainable without consensus and new funding. For example, and as outlined in the March 28th, 2019 The Atlantic post, "Why Trump Wants to Go to the Moon So Badly," NASA:
... received far more funding in the Apollo days than it does now; at the moon program’s peak, the agency’s annual budget accounted for more than 4 percent of federal spending. It’s less than half a percent today. NASA has poured plenty into exploration efforts in the past several decades, but one president’s policies usually get yanked back by the next. Little gets done in the meantime. 
The latest NASA budget, $21.5Bln US ($29Mln CDN), is the largest in years. But the Trump administration had requested $19.9Bln US ($27Mln CDN), and it was Congress, the final arbiter on funding, who added the extra cash. And in its request for next year’s allocation, the administration actually proposed scaling back funding.
Others are far more cynical. As outlined in the March 27th, 2019 Popular Mechanics post, "Not Going Back to the Moon: A Brief Timeline," VP Pence has:
...become the face of the Trump Administration's mission to put US boots back on the moon, and beyond. Last fall, NASA released a roadmap of its new new plan for returning to the lunar surface via the Lunar Gateway, a space station to be built in orbit around the moon. But that timeline wouldn't put Americans there until 2028. 
At yesterday's (the Tuesday, March 26th, 2019) Space Council meeting, Pence declared that 2028 is not soon enough. He demanded NASA return to the moon by 2024—perhaps not coincidentally, the final year of a theoretical two-term Trump Administration—and said that if NASA couldn't do the job, the Executive Branch would find somebody in the private sector who could.
The Popular Mechanics post also noted a series of policy changes and reversals which related to space and went back to the Bush presidency. Most of the current US plans for the future go back to that period and while some of the programs have changed their names over the part twenty years, most of the same technology is still on the same drawing boards and being promoted in much the same way by many of the same engineers and politicians.

The only real change over the last twenty years has come from the way NASA has contracted out some of its smaller programs.

The reference to "private sector" providers is a veiled reference to the various corporations which grew out of the NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. CCDev used what, for NASA at least, was considered to be an innovative series of public/private partnerships and procurement contracts to fund and build low-cost space technology.

The capacity developed through the CCDev program is likely almost ready to compete with NASA's legacy programs, such as the SLS and the Lunar Gateway. Hawthorne CA based SpaceX and it's mercurial CEO Elon Musk is already "bending metal" on privately funded technology intended to colonize Mars.

Over the next few years, this new tech will begin to wag the legacy dog.

Of course, none of this is going to help Canada's space industry. We've strapped our space future to an expensive legacy Lunar Gateway controlled by the Americans over which we have no real input. The program will live, die or end up on life support depending on US domestic policy concerns which have nothing to do with Canadian issues.

Maybe we'll take a page from the Americans and start changing the plan after every budget. Stranger things have happened and it sure would confuse the Americans!
Chuck Black.

Chuck Black is the editor of the Commercial Space blog. 

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