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The Space Review: A reworking of exploration

Celebration Apollo 50

As the country prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, including a light show on the National Mall, NASA has found itself trapped in its return to the moon. (credit: NASM)

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It's a week that NASA had planned to focus on its past, not on its future, until the present intervenes.

This is the week when the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Apollo reach their peak. Events across the country will commemorate the launch of Apollo 11 and its landing on the Moon, from Florida's Space Coast to the Seattle Airplane Museum. In Washington DC, a series of events are planned at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Mall, including a light show that will project a life-size Saturn V rocket on the Washington Monument.

"I just thought it was important to make that decision, to make that change at this point," Bridenstine said.

But by the end of last week, the space community could only talk about upcoming celebrations, but rather an upheaval a few blocks away from the National Air Museum and the headquarters space. The NASA. Late on Wednesday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine announced in an internal memo that he was reassigning two senior officials participating in NASA's exploration program. Bill Gerstenmaier, a long-time associate director for human exploration and operations, would now be a special advisor to deputy administrator Jim Morhard. Bill Hill, Associate Assistant Administrator of Exploration Systems Development, was also reassigned to become a special advisor to Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

This memo gave little detail as to why Gerstenmaier and Hill had been reassigned – downgraded, or even fired, in the eyes of most NASA members and the space sector. "As you know, NASA has launched a bold challenge: to place the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, with the focus on the ultimate goal of the game. send human beings to Mars, "Bridenstine wrote. "In order to meet this challenge, I decided to change the direction of the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) mission direction."

Few, if any, have witnessed such a change. On Wednesday morning, Gerstenmaier testified before the space committee of the House's Scientific Committee during a hearing on NASA's low-Earth-orbit marketing strategy. In his testimony, nothing seemed abnormal. Gerstenmaier stayed late after the end of the hearing to discuss with committee members and other participants.

He certainly took the members of this committee by surprise. "I was surprised by the announcement of the administrator," said Thursday representative Kendra Horn (D-OK), chair of the space subcommittee, in a statement. stating that she "was worried about the consequences of such abrupt leadership changes in the inhabited space flight of our country.programs could have."

NASA has made no public announcements of reassignments beyond the memo. During interviews over the next two days, however, Bridenstine said that the urgency of the target set by the administration at NASA, consisting of placing men on the South Pole of the Moon by 2024, required the agency to act quickly to keep the program on track.

"We are entering a new era of manned spaceflight where the administration wants to go fast, we are interested in doing things differently, and I felt that it was important to have a new leadership at the top of human exploration. and Operational Mission Direction, "said Bridenstine in an interview with C-SPAN on Friday. "I just thought it was important to make that decision, to make that change at that time."

But why now, exactly? This is the question many industry members have continued to ask, wondering if there was any triggering event that would have caused the reassignments. Has there been any kind of report that has announced bad news about the development of SLS and Orion, or sales teams? Was there a directive from a White House dissatisfied with the pace of development?

Bridenstine seemed to reject this last scenario. "It was quite my decision," he said in the interview with C-SPAN. "At the end of the day, we need to be very clear that NASA is committed to cost and schedule. Safety is the top priority, but we are committed to meeting the costs and schedule, and I just thought it was important to make that change at that time. Bridenstine has focused on "cost and schedule" throughout the interview.


Bill Gerstenmaier testified at a hearing in Hpuse last Wednesday, a few hours before NASA announced that he was being reassigned from his longtime associate director position for the company. human exploration and operations. (credit: NASA / Aubrey Gemignani)

Gerstenmaier, associate director in charge of human exploration and operations since the creation of this mission direction in 2011 with the merger of the directorates of exploration and space operations, has been widely admired within and outside NASA for its technical expertise in manned spaceflight and unadorned assessments. both the achievements and the challenges of the agency. He has won numerous awards for his services at NASA, including an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, Purdue University, earlier this year.

"Everyone can participate when everything is going on and new money is being pumped into the agency, but we have had a series of meetings where we have started discussing other things that we can reduce, "Gerstenmaier told Can.

However, these assessments could conflict with other agency statements. At a meeting of NASA's Advisory Board on May 31, he warned of the agency's future budgets. NASA has requested additional funding of $ 1.6 billion for fiscal year 2020, allowing it to conduct work on lunar satellites for the Artemis program and other efforts without affecting the programs of 39, other agencies.

"When we turn 21, I do not think we can get the entire budget as new money," Gerstenmaier said at the meeting. "We will have to look for efficiencies and make internal reductions at the agency, and that's where it will be difficult."

This includes, he says, cuts in the exploration program and outside of it. "Everyone can be there when everything is going on and new money is coming into the agency, but we have already had a series of meetings where we are starting to discuss other things. things we can reduce or how can we slow down some things to focus. "

A few days later, the agency reacted by reiterating its public position claiming that other parts of NASA would not be forced to pay for Artemis: "The administrator said we would not do scientific looting to pay Artemis . This is the position of the agency. "

What is not clear yet, however, is how much Artemis will cost. In an interview with CNN last month, Bridenstine estimated that NASA would need $ 20 to $ 30 billion in addition to previous budget estimates for humans to land on the moon by 2024. Neither Bridenstine nor agency their projection, including what the funding profile would look like. as beyond 2020.

Bridenstine, in the C-SPAN interview, is somewhat removed from this cost estimate, suggesting that this could be done cheaply if trading partners joined us. "What we are learning is that there are other people who want to contribute to this," he said. "They want to invest their own money. Why? Because they want customers who are not NASA. If they have customers who are not NASA, it reduces our costs. He added that it was "very realistic" that his cost was less than $ 20 billion.

NASA has yet to secure any new funding for Artemis. The House did not follow through on the $ 1.6-billion budget amendment when it reviewed its Trade, Justice and Science Appropriations Bill, which was prepared for fiscal year 2020, which finances NASA. It was no surprise, he said in the interview, because the budget amendment was released the same week that the supply subcommittee reviewed the bill.

"I've talked to people on both sides of the aisle who are, in fact, very, very supportive," he said of members of the House. "The problem is they simply do not have the time." He hopes instead that the Senate will incorporate funding into its version of an expenditure bill. However, the Senate has not yet started working on a spending bill for the fiscal year 2020.

"The process is just beginning," said Bridenstine. "I am convinced that this can be achieved."

And while Bridenstine said reassignment was his only decision, he knew that the Artemis program as a whole held the attention of the White House. On June 7, President Trump intervened on Twitter in a statement that seems to throw everyone, including NASA, off guard. "Despite all the money we spend, NASA should NOT talk about going to the moon – we did it 50 years ago," he wrote. "They should focus on the much bigger things we do, including Mars (which the Moon is part of), Defense and Science!"

"He said very clearly," I know you have to go to the moon to reach Mars, but talk about Mars, "said Bridenstine about Trump." We'll continue to talk about why we're going on the Moon, this is the test ground for the Mars mission. "

While Trump's statement seemed to suggest that NASA should absolutely not return to the moon, NASA officials and the administration said that hours later, the president simply reaffirmed the long-term goal of go on Mars. "We have asked Congress for additional resources to arrive on the Moon by 2024, which will allow us to visit Mars about ten years after the creation of a sustainable presence on the lunar surface." said a White House official a few hours later. later.

A day after this tweet, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Council of Space, gave additional explanations, saying that the focus on the Moon in the short term meant that there was not enough discussion about the fact to go to Mars. "I do not think we're always doing a good job talking about the broader vision that this is part of," he said at a luncheon at the international conference on the development of Space of the National Space Society. "What he's doing is to step back and express, I think, a very understandable impatience with the time that it takes, and sometimes we miss the sight of it." 39, together. "

Bridenstine, in the C-SPAN interview, also mentioned that he had spoken in recent weeks to Trump. "He said very clearly," I know you have to go to the moon to reach Mars, but talk about Mars, "said Bridenstine about Trump." We'll continue to talk about why we're going on the Moon, this is the test ground for the Mars mission. "

Transforming this speech, whether it is missions on the Moon or on Mars, will be the work of a new leadership. Former astronaut Ken Bowersox, deputy to Gerstenmaier, will be acting associate director of exploration and human operations. Bridenstine said it plans to seek a permanent replacement nationally, which will facilitate the hiring of two deputy ministers: one to replace Hill, who oversees work on SLS and Orion, and one new deputy programs such as Gateway and Lunar Landers.

"We're going to invite them to review the programs and set their own baseline schedules and costs, and then have them run at these baseline levels," Bridenstine said of the new leadership. He added that impending decisions, including whether or not to conduct a "green" test of the SLS main step – giving up on this measure, would save months, but increase program risk – will be left to this new direction.

The Apollo program experienced its own leadership upheavals before successfully reaching humans on the moon 50 years ago this month. Some are from the Apollo 1 accident, others from various problems and conflicts between the agency, its subcontractors and the White House. As the country celebrates Apollo's accomplishments this week, we remember that there were many challenges to face and that Artemis would not be different.

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