Humans on the Moon: extracting reality from the hype of recent announcements by NASA, SpaceX, China and Russia
This piece was written by Pat Norris. Pat worked as a NASA contractor on the Apollo programme in Houston from 1967 to 1970 then returned to Europe to work for ESA and then in the UK for software multinational CGI. His 50 years in the space industry are outlined at www.pat-norris.com. He is the author of three non-fiction books on space.
In the past two months Europe, Canada, Australia, Russia and Japan have all signed up to join NASA’s programme to return humans to the Moon. Under the evocative title of Artemis (twin sister of Apollo) that programme includes a Lunar Gateway orbiting the Moon on a long term basis, plus a suite of facilities that includes the Space Launch System (SLS) super-heavy lift launcher, the Orion spacecraft to carry humans to the vicinity of the Moon, a lunar lander, logistics vehicles and extensive ground facilities to support integration, testing, launch and operations. In September NASA strengthened its commitment by awarding contracts valued at $4.6 billion to the Orion contractor, Lockheed Martin, to supply six operational Orion spacecraft the first to be delivered in 2024.
Back in March, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence set 2024 as the deadline for having Americans back on the Moon’s surface – halving the ten years NASA had set itself in 2018 to achieve this goal. The head of NASA, former Congressman Jim Bridenstine, has made various internal changes to address this and has asked Congress for an immediate $1.6 billion extra as a down payment on the $20-30 billion he reckons will be required over the next six years.
Vice President Pence’s statement differed significantly from that of President John F Kennedy in 1961 when he committed the USA “before this decade is out to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely”. Kennedy made his speech to Congress, while Spence addressed a committee of space enthusiasts – the National Space Council. Kennedy explicitly told Congress that he was there to ask for “the funds that are needed to meet the national goal” of men on the Moon while Pence spoke only of going to the Moon and didn’t mention funding. Pence’s statement looks more like that of the Soviet Union in the 1960s – development of the N1 super rocket was approved by the highest level Government and Communist Party authorities in 1962, but then drip fed with funding (at one point work stopped for almost a year due to lack of funding).
If Congress comes up with the extra funds that NASA has requested, then 2024 is probably an achievable schedule. The devil is often in the detail since just as in Britain, announcements about new funding are often mixed in with rearrangement of existing funding making it difficult to see what is truly new.
Optimistic NASA statements about schedule and funding are cast in doubt by reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and NASA’s own internal audit unit, the Office of the Inspector General. In June the GAO accused NASA of understating the future cost estimates for both SLS and Orion – thereby narrowly avoiding a 30% SLS cost increase that triggers Congressional action. The GAO also slammed NASA for paying the SLS and Orion contractors excessive bonuses given that both contracts are way behind schedule and over budget. The NASA Inspector General declared last October that the Orion costs are running at “double the amount initially planned,” and the schedule “has slipped two and a half years. It bluntly stated that “cost increases and schedule delays [are] largely driven by poor [contractor] performance” coupled with “poor contract management practices by NASA”. The surprise is that it took NASA Administrator Bridenstine ten months to get rid of the relevant NASA senior manager.
On a more general note, NASA’s statements about the concepts and architecture of the Artemis have sometimes shown little relationship to reality. Bridenstine has many times declared that NASA is taking a sustainable approach in comparison to the Apollo approach of “plant a flag and come home”. However, the flagship SLS development is a step backward in sustainability in several ways. On a positive note, it makes use of left-over Space Shuttle main engines, but in a bizarre way – instead of re-using them as the Shuttle did several times over, each engine will be flown once and then end up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. SLS will also re-use extended versions of the Space Shuttle strap-on solid rocket boosters, but instead of re-using them as Shuttle did, they too will end up on the ocean floor after a single launch. We have become used to seeing the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 return to Earth and flown again, which sounds more sustainable than the SLS approach.
And the Orion capsule is also a single use vehicle, unlike for example the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft used to resupply the International Space Station, one of which has now been used three times.
Thus the reality of NASA’s plans comes down to whether Congress comes up with the funds to pay the ultra-expensive costs of SLS and Orion. Alternatives involving the use of existing rockets at a tiny fraction of the cost have been proposed – for example in March by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. The potential to take a much cheaper approach makes it all the more difficult to persuade Congress to come up with the extra $20-30 billion that NASA says it needs.
NASA is not the only U.S. organisation to publish optimistic forecasts. SpaceX has begun development of the Super Heavy rocket and its Starship upper stage and spacecraft which will have the payload capability of the Apollo-era Saturn 5 – and be fully re-usable. According to SpaceX boss Elon Musk, the re-usability feature means that it will have almost double the inherent capability of the Saturn 5. Musk reckons to be flying humans around the Moon in it by 2023 but even he admits that this date might slip. SpaceX is about three years behind in delivering its first man-rated spacecraft, the Crew Dragon, so 2023 for Starship looks very ambitious.
The other U.S. organisation with plans to send humans to the Moon is Blue Origin, owned and largely funded by Jeff Bezos, the founder and boss of Amazon (and the world’s richest man). He tends to be circumspect, some would say secretive, about future schedules, but he has suffered delays in his first space venture – the use of his Shepard rocket to take paying customers into space for a few minutes.
China has also announced tentative plans to send humans to the Moon, and has indicated that the Long March 9 rocket intended for this purpose and incorporating a new and powerful engine might have its maiden launch in the 2028 to 2030 timeframe. An actual commitment to full scale development of the Long March 9 is still a few years away, and until then the schedule for placing a Chinese citizen on the Moon is a matter of speculation.
In May 2017 Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed his space agency, Roscosmos, to give priority to developing a super-heavy lift rocket with a view to a manned Moon landing. The first test launch of the new rocket was set for 2028. A precursor development called Soyuz 5 is underway but continued funding seems to be tied to Soyuz-5 being able to win commercial launch contracts, and that will be increasingly difficult as SpaceX drives down the price of launchers everywhere in the world.
As noted at the start, in August Russia confirmed its interest in NASA’s plans for returning humans to the Moon but has not explained how that fits with its own developments. Then in September, it signed an agreement with China to work together on robotic exploration of the Moon. Russia’s heritage of engine development coupled with China’s management skills and money might be a cost-effective formula for extending this agreement to include the difficult challenge of a human Moon landing. Putin and Xi have met more than 25 times, far more frequently than either has with any other head of state, so if they remain in power for a few more years their close personal relationship makes such an arrangement a likely one.
Detailed analysis of the topics in this blog are included in Pat Norris’s book Returning People to the Moon After Apollo – Will It Be Another 50 years? published by Springer Praxis in June.