NASA’s Surprise Lunar 5 Year Challenge | Moon To Stay

The Moon is a hot topic these days. Plans to get boots on the ground are evolving on nearly a daily basis. This past week US vice president pence made the surprise challenge for NASA to get american astronauts on the moon by 2024.. Moving up the timeline for a crewed mission significantly. It’s the boldest government statement on space since Kennedy. Pence’s announcement included some subtle digs and some threats if NASA can’t live up to these new benchmarks.

With this new challenge comes years of difficult work to make it happen. Hi, my name is Matt Warren and I am the host of Moon to Stay, a show about the future of humans on the moon.

NASA’s new goal of getting astronauts to the south pole of the moon in 2024 comes at the same time as NASA is fighting to maintain it’s shrinking budget before congress. It was in this proposed budget that NASA had actually scaled back it’s investment in the SLS rocket system capable of reaching the moon due to slipping timelines on the part of Boeing and sub-contractors to deliver a working rocket. It doesn’t look like there will be a bold budget to match the bold demands that the white house is placing on NASA. Instead, most of the money will likely to come from cutting costs.

This goal puts everything on the table and will probably force some difficult decisions, and even tougher arguments. The plan was to build the Gateway station which orbits the moon, establish gateway as a base of operations and then proceed to the lunar surface for missions. 5 years isn’t enough time to build the full gateway first so something will have to give. To further complicate the matter are the international partnerships – Canada has publically commited to being a partner on the Gateway, JAXA, Roscosmos, and ESA have also designed modules that will be part of the station. Should NASA be forced to change the timelines or even re-think the whole station itself in light of it’s new goals that would create some backlash from international partners already invested into the Gateway concept.

It is still early in the  planning to see even if it is possible for NASA to get back to the moon within 5 years. How they will pull it off is very much an open question at the moment. The existing plans for the Moon were not focused on building the capability for a crewed landing to the surface until late in the 2020’s. As of today there are not much more than preliminary concept designs for a lunar lander – We’re a long way from actually building and testing hardware and training pilots. The SLS rocket is still years away from being flown with a crew on board! Without SLS the only options would require a rendezvous in LEO – flight plans that I’m sure are being considered.

In light of this advanced timeline, NASA is engaging with the commercial lunar payload companies to assess if they can ramp up their timelines for delivering scientific payloads to the south pole. We have never been to the south pole and have limited information about what the surface looks like there. Due to shadowing it can be more difficult to get good imagery of that area. It will be critical to get some robots there in advance of any humans to see what the landing surface is like and learn more about what astronauts will be getting themselves into. There’s not much time to design, build and fly these robotic missions.

Vice president Pence made a slight digg in his speech about considering commercial rockets. This was directed at the SLS project and Boeing for having a difficult time with delivering a working rocket. When SLS is ready to fly it will be the largest rocket by a significant margin, and the only rocket capable of delivering people or large cargo payloads directly to the moon. Even Falcon Heavy is not able to launch enough mass to the moon to be much help with a direct mission to the moon. But thus far SLS has proven to be a money pit. Getting it back on schedule might require things like skipping on pre-launch testing of the design and engines. Time will tell if NASA and Boeing will be able to find enough slack to cut, without compromising safety.

The new directive is starting to force a discussion within NASA and the government about how it will operate going forward. Front and center is that ever since apollo wound down NASA has been treated as source of make work projects, given out to strategic states in return for political favors. Decades of this has resulted in complex and costly inefficiencies within the organization that is forced to do things with their hands tied. Getting to the moon in 5 years cannot happen with this arrangement. There is some hope that an audacious goal from the white house will force discussions with the governors who fight to protect jobs of people unnecessary or not good enough to reach the goals.

Pence warned NASA that if they can’t put astronauts on the moon by 2024 then “we need to change the organization, not the mission.” Is that a threat, setting the stage for failure, so that the budget can be reduced if NASA fails?

This is the first time in a long time that NASA has been given a goal without stipulations about how to achieve it. That may turn out to be the biggest difference. Instead of “build a rocket but use parts from the shuttle” or “build an orbiting moon base but reuse things from the asteroid capture mission”. Time will tell if this is a fundamental shift or just veiled threats to kick up some productivity. When we see NASA cutting out entrenched contractors backed by powerful governors who are obstructing NASA from their timeline, then, and only then, will we know that things have really changed.

In the coming weeks NASA and partners will be re-evaluating all options about how they can achieve the goal of a human moon mission by 2024. I expect to start hearing more about alternative flight plans, tighter focus and perhaps a major re-think about strategy before the end of April. Stay tuned for all the exciting developments as they happen.