Is this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander?

Is this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander?
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The German statesman Otto von Bismarck once said that two things should not be examined too closely, sausage making and law making. NASA recently added a third thing, the making of a new lunar lander, at least the first step of selecting a center to oversee the project.

NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineNASA demonstrates why rocket science is still hard with the SLS test Will Axiom Space provide a commercial space station replacement for NASA's ISS? NASA-Canadian agreement demonstrates how Artemis is an international moonshot MORE recently announced that the Marshall Spaceflight Center near Huntsville, Alabama would supervise the building of the next lunar lander that will carry the first woman and the next man to land on the moon. The 21st century version of the lunar lander will, like Gaul, be divided into three parts, according to Space News, a transfer stage, a descent stage, and an ascent stage.

NASA Marshall would develop the transfer and descent stages. The Johnson Spaceflight Center would oversee the ascent stage, where the astronauts will reside during a near week-long stay on the moon.


Two versions of the lunar lander will be built by different commercial companies, similar to how the commercial crew system was developed. NASA will not own the lunar landers but will buy rides on them from the Gateway station in lunar orbit to the lunar surface and back. Later, larger versions of the lunar lander capable of taking four-person crews to the moon and sustaining them on the lunar surface for longer periods will be built. Each contractor will agree to carry 10 percent of the cost, though some are said to be willing to shoulder as much as 30 percent.

The sausage-making part of this story concerns the reason why two-thirds of the lunar lander are being supervised in Alabama and one-third is being built in Texas. Bridenstine explained that NASA Marshall has a great deal of expertise in propulsion systems, hence it is where the transfer and descent stages are being developed. JSC is the center of NASA’s human spaceflight expertise, hence it is being given the ascent module.

What Bridenstine said is absolutely true. It is also true that Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Space Command to be located in Alabama MORE (R-Ala.), is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. His support is crucial if NASA is to be awarded the extra money, anywhere between $20 billion and $30 billion, to meet the 2024 deadline. The more money spent in Alabama and the more jobs created, the more likely that Shelby will make sure that money will be available.

However, as Ars Technica indicates, this arrangement was fashioned at the cost of irking powerful Texas lawmakers, especially Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHillicon Valley: Biden's cyber priorities zero in on Russian hack | Apple, Facebook report increase in earnings at the end of 2020 | International authorities disrupt 'world's most dangerous malware' McCaul urges senators to block vote on Commerce secretary over Huawei concerns Lankford to stay on Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission after Capitol riot MORE (R-Texas), who is the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA. NASA exacerbated the problem when no one informed Cruz or Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), the congressman whose district includes JSC.

After the announcement that NASA Marshall was going to get the lion’s share of the lunar lander, Cruz, Babin, and Sen. John Corbyn (R-Texas), sent Bridenstine a letter asking him to reconsider. The NASA center in Texas developed the Apollo-era lunar lander and thus should be given the task of overseeing the modern version.


Bridenstine made the formal announcement at NASA Marshall as planned. Cruz especially is not pleased, which he indicated in a press release published by Spaceref:

“I am deeply disappointed in the announcement today by NASA Administrator Bridenstine. Johnson Space Center was the lead Center for the lunar lander program during Apollo - the last time the United States landed astronauts on the Moon and brought them back safely to Earth - and remains the lead Center in human spaceflight to this day.” Cruz said.

“While the Marshall Space Flight Center's expertise in rocketry and propulsion is unquestioned, the responsibility for managing the next lunar lander should rest with the Center with the history and experience in manned spaceflight - the Johnson Space Center,” Cruz added. “As NASA moves forward with their plans, I will use every tool at my disposal to ensure the Johnson Space Center remains the crown jewel in human space exploration."

Cruz’s message to Bridenstine could not be clearer. He will likely let this matter slide. Cruz is genuinely supportive of space exploration beyond the money and jobs it brings to Texas. If he decided to fight the decision, it would only serve to jeopardize the 2024 deadline. However, Cruz is going to want something for JSC in the future in exchange for his forbearance. Bridenstine has been warned.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”