Doug Loverro, whose space experience has been primarily military, has taken his place as the NASA Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate or HEOMD. Loverro is in charge of sending human beings to the International Space Station as well as the moon and, eventually, to Mars. He has a difficult job ahead of him.
“Rocket science” has become a byword for complexity for a reason. NASA programs, especially those that involve sending people to destinations in the heavens, have often taken longer than expected and cost more than estimated. Loverro’s job is to take control of NASA’s two human spaceflight programs, Commercial Crew and Artemis, and get them to proceed on time and on budget. The goal is imperative because NASA programs that cost more and take more time become vulnerable to cancellation.
A strange exception to that rule is the Space Launch System, the rocket that is still the center of NASA’s plan to return to the moon by 2024. It has proven to be billions over budget and years late. The SLS is now due to launch for the first time in 2021 — maybe. The heavy rocket maintains support because it is being built in Alabama, the home state of Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbySenate leaders face pushback on tying debt fight to defense bill Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight Pelosi hammers 'anti-science, anti-vaccination' Republicans for threatening shutdown MORE, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Otherwise, NASA might opt to use commercial rockets, such as the Falcon Heavy or the upcoming Starship, to get people back to the moon, saving a lot of money. Loverro’s toughest job is to get control of the SLS and make it work, cutting its estimated $2 billion a launch cost.
NASA’s workforce is clearly worried about the fate of the Artemis program, as two of the questions asked during the town hall in which NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineBill Nye promotes infrastructure, social spending bills with Biden NASA can facilitate the commercial space station race SpaceX all-civilian crew returns to Earth, successfully completing 3-day mission MORE introduced Loverro to employees at the space agency suggest.
“With new funding stalled, how does Moon2024 differ from the other times Lucy has pulled the football from the workforce?”
Lucy and the football is the analogy that Bridenstine has used for the other two times NASA embarked on a human deep space exploration program only to have them cancelled.
“Artemis lacks the congressional support required to make it a reality. For how long will NASA pretend otherwise?”
Bridenstine took on those two questions by noting that a NASA funding bill has passed out of the Senate. It includes money for a lunar lander, key to getting humans back to the moon by 2024. But OMB has sent a letter to Shelby arguing that funding for the lunar lander and related technology in the Senate bill is insufficient to achieve the 2024 goal. The House version of the NASA bill has none of the extra funding at all.
The problem is that NASA, like many other parts of the government, has been funded by a continuing resolution since the current fiscal year started. Congress has not been doing its job of getting funding bills passed in a timely manner. If a NASA appropriations bill that contains sufficient money for lunar landers fails to pass by December 20, the goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024 becomes problematic. Bridenstine has sent a letter to Congress imploring it to pass an appropriations bill for NASA that includes lunar lander money.
If Congress does as Bridenstine asks, then the part of NASA that handles human space flight, under Loverro’s leadership, has to perform. The whole point of sending the first crewed expedition to the moon since 1972 in five years is to concentrate the minds of the people working to make that happen with a deadline. No more delays. Artemis must put people on the moon by 2024.
The strategy is fraught with some degree of risk. One disaster, either during a test or, worse, during an actual mission, would set back the Artemis program by months or even years. A mishap could kill the third effort to send explorers out into deep space entirely.
But the rewards for success will be sweeter than any effort undertaken since the Apollo program. Artemis would prove that the United States and her international and commercial partners can achieve something wonderful, uniting much of the world in not just the exploration of space, but the expansion of human civilization beyond the Earth, to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.