Wednesday, April 10, 2019

4 Questions for NASA and Vice President Pence after the New Goal of Boots on the Moon by 2024.

In a recent speech to the National Space Council, Vice President Mike Pence called upon NASA to step up its game and charged them with a new mission of putting humans back on the moon by 2024. Sure, if NASA landed astronauts on the Moon by 2024, everyone would be psyched about NASA's new technology and productivity. But to do this, NASA needs to change many aspects of the organization. We all want to see a Moon landing in 2024, but is there enough time for NASA to make the necessary changes without the risks being too high? This is one of many questions that must be answered before we land on the Moon again. Let's discuss some other pertinent questions I and many others in the space community have for NASA. 

1. What will NASA use to get humans to the Moon and back?

Perhaps the most relevant question is how will NASA possibly be able to pull this off? Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently spoke about the commercial options available to NASA for EM-1 and beyond. He said that, over a two-week span, NASA engineers looked at all the currently available commercial options to launch EM-1, and came to the conclusion that the most feasible option would be a Falcon Heavy with an ICPS second stage topped of with the Orion MPCV and the European Service Module. This configuration can make it to and around the Moon for EM-1, which is the first step toward the end goal. This option also leaves NASA's SLS for a future flight to carry the Gateway or another important payload to orbit. Other options were discussed, like 2 Delta IV Heavies or a Falcon Heavy and a Delta IV Heavy, but these configurations had many technical and logical difficulties like docking two Delta Heavies or the issue of launching them from the east and the west coasts, etc. It was concluded that Falcon Heavy, ICPS, Orion MPCV, and ESM is the most logical and probable option for EM-1.

2. How will NASA land on the Moon?

Lockheed Martin's ascent vehicle docked to the Gateway
This might seem like a simple question, but if there is no lander, there is no point in even discussing the other questions, right? On the day that I am writing this, Lockheed Martin just released their design for a lunar lander and ascent vehicle that would dock to the Gateway after descending to the Moon's surface. Lockheed Martin has said this design, a two part design of the non-reusable landing stage and the ascent vehicle, can be ready by 2024 as long as they are provided with enough resources. NASA has not yet contracted any company for the production of a lander, but Lockheed Martin is the obvious choice, assuming they fit within the budget for the 2024 push that should be released by NASA next week sometime. NASA has asked private industry to produce designs for a lander, with contracts being awarded sometime later this year. Considering Lockheed Martin's past cooperation with NASA and its strong track record, LM is looking like the probable choice to build a lander, so long as NASA can get the Gateway up and running by 2024. 

3. How will NASA pay for it?

NASA is scheduled to submit a tentative budget for what funds they need in terms of resources by April 15th. Bridenstine has commented on the lack of funds, down $480 million from last year's budget, to get to the Moon by 2024. He is confident, though, that NASA will get increased funding since this is a mandate from the top of the government. No matter the difficulties, Bridenstine says, he is confidant NASA will reach the goal in the timeline set by Mike Pence and the Trump administration. However, I am skeptical that the government will provide funding. Pence has said to achieve the goal by "any means necessary", but if Congress is not willing to approve more funding, where will NASA get said means? Yes, commercial companies have driven down the cost of rockets drastically, but they still cost hundreds of millions of dollars( Delta IV Heavy: $350 mil. Falcon Heavy $150 mil. in expendable form). Unless NASA receives more financial support and less hyped up talk, I believe they cannot achieve their goal without pulling resources from other areas of NASA, whether it be research, experiments, or other missions. 

4. How will NASA ensure the safety of their astronauts?

This is the most important question for me personally and I know that feeling is shared by the larger space community. When you decrease deadlines to this extent, basically cutting it in half, the question must be asked, how will you make sure the humans are safe? What corners will be cut by manufacturers just to make sure they meet the harsh demands by NASA? How can you ensure the rockets are human rated if you only have a few years to test the rockets? These are questions that NASA needs to answer. Bridenstine has obviously reassured the public that NASA will not fly astronauts to the Moon by 2024 unless they are absolutely sure of their success, but political pressure from Congress and the Trump administration could push Bridenstine and NASA to assume more risk than they usually would. Safety should be the number one priority, and the new goal of 2024 could rush manufactures into making tiny flaws that could lead to bigger problems and potentially tragedies, which no one ever wants to see. Sure, the "boots on the Moon by 2024" slogan sounds inspiring and brave, but we must realize real safety issues that must be dealt with first. 

We all want to see humans back on the Moon. It gives us an addicting sense of pride and nostalgia. But before the public gets fully on board with this, we need answers from NASA so we know that the safety and preservation of human life and the NASA organization are top priority in the long run. When you look at the big picture, we must realize that the technology being developed and used to get humans back to the Moon will look very similar to the technology used to get humans to Mars. This is essentially a practice run for that goal. When we realize this, we must understand that the Moon is not the end goal and rather the beginning, and that we must get things correct now, so we don't run into issues and bigger problems in the future.

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