Marshall wins Artemis manned Moon lander pork


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As expected and despite opposition from some Texas lawmakers, NASA yesterday announced that it has given the bulk of the management of its Artemis manned lunar lander project to the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Marshall will be in charge of two of the contractors who will build what NASA conceives as three components for the lander: the transfer vehicle, the descent module, and the upper ascent stage:

The lunar lander, consisting of three components, also will be launched atop commercial rockets and docked at the Gateway before any astronauts arrive. One component, a sort of carrier craft known as a transfer vehicle, would take the lander from Gateway down to a lower orbit. From there, the lander’s descent module will make a rocket-powered landing on the moon, initially carrying two astronauts.

The astronauts would ride down to the surface in the pressurized cabin of an upper ascent stage. That stage will use the descent module as a launching pad, much like the Apollo astronauts did 50 years ago, to climb back up to the transfer vehicle and then on to Gateway.

Marshall will supervise construction of the transfer vehicle and the descent module, while the Johnson Space Center in Texas will manage construction of the upper ascent stage.

Does no one in NASA or the Trump administration see the stupidity of this? It is as if Ford decided that the interior and exterior sections of its cars will be assembled in two different factories, and only combined after they are assembled. The logistics of making sure they will fit and work together during final assembly could only increase costs, delay assembly, and almost guarantee engineering issues. No intelligently run business would do such a thing.

Government however is not an intelligently run business. It is run by politicians, whom we the public have not held to any kind of quality standard for the past half century. Thus, NASA is forced to spread this pork around because politicians in Alabama (Senator Richard Shelby) and Texas (Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn) demand it do so.

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14 comments

  • mike shupp

    Mr Zimmerman —

    “Does no one in NASA or the Trump administration see the stupidity of this?” You ask. “It is as if Ford decided that the interior and exterior sections of its cars will be assembled in two different factories, and only combined after they are assembled.”

    But that’s how expensive aerospace vehicles are built anymore. Bust your projects up, hive the hardware building off to half a dozen subcontractors in Asia, send the electronics off to Europe and the software to India …. The real essential stuff, the thinking stuff, the management, sure you can keep that in New York or Chicago or just outside Washington DC. There’s no better way to eliminate the high cost of domestic American labor than to offshore as much as possible.

    Is this liberal thinking? Or conservative? Or just modern management?

  • Mike Shupp asked, “Is this liberal thinking? Or conservative? Or just modern management?”

    It is bad management. Note that SpaceX was having problems with farming out stuff to subcontractors, and decided to build as much as it could in house.

    As for having “the real essential stuff, the thinking stuff, the management” controlled by “New York or Chicago or just outside Washington DC.”, the track record of these elitist communities in the past forty years is quite abysmal. Better to look elsewhere for your thinking.

  • mike shupp

    One dismal implication here is that Marshall and Johnson and these senators are squabbling over the near term future — the Artemis program up to 2024 or so, nt what happens later. You’d think some sensible voices could be heard saying “Let Marshall have its bit of glory. What counts is 2028 and afterward, when we really bring the Gateway up to full operational status and finally put a manned base on the Moon. That’s when the pedal goes to the metal for human space flight and colonization and stays there forever. JSC is going to make that happen and JSC will hold that position as long as NASA endures.”

    Instead … We’ve got Ted Cruz looking to the far future of 2069 for the newspapers and thinking “my daughters will get to see a woman on the Moon” and evidently that’s as much excitement as he imagine. Sad.

  • Terry Pickett

    I never thought that 2024 was realistic. NASA will not get the extra funding. The Democrats were never going to vote for it. Now, you have irritated the Texas delegation and they will give lukewarm support. Senator Shelby is killing NASA. Time to give manned space flight to the private sector and concentrate on what they do best: deep space probes.

  • pzatchok

    So they know the gateway will be in the wrong orbit for 90% of the research they are doing.

    So to fix this they are building a transfer vehicle that will carry all the fuel to move the Apollo style lander/assent vehicle into and out of the correct orbit.

    So what fuel is being saved by the Gateway orbiter?

    And if the lander is left behind on each trip will they not have to send a lander up to replace it?

    Do you really think NASA will save the assent vehicle after each trip? Heck no. They will not trust it to work without a total overhaul.

    So now NASA has to send up an assent/lander vehicle. Extra fuel for the transfer vehicle. And the return vehicle to get back to Earth with each and every bunch of astronauts.

    Why is the Gateway there?

  • mike shupp

    Hmmm… I don’t see Democrats wildly embracing Donald Trump’s plans for space, but it isn’t as if any of their presidential contenders has any clue about alternate programs. Financially, Artemis no big deal even with a 2024 speedup, when compared to the sort of healthcare and infrastructure and environmental bills the Democrats will want to introduce, and Democrats gave up the political fight against Trump budgets with the recent spending bill. I think in their eyes, Artemis is as a good a forward plan as any, particularly if it slides a year or two and gets relabeled so voters don’t link it in their minds to Trump.

    Moving on to Shelby, he’s just one guy, y’know? His name keeps popping up for space buffs, but he might as well be invisible for pretty much all the political and economic websites I hit, so he might not be swinging all that much weight in the Senate. Ted Cruz, other hand, is pretty well known; 2016 and 2018 weren’t his best years politically, but he pulled through them, and maybe learned some lessons in tenacity. He’s still young as senators go, and he still ought to have a solid base in evangelical Christians, so I can imagine him emerging as a Presidential contender again once Trump is gone. Not a guy for NASA to annoy in my estimation, but maybe there’s some internal NASA politics most of us don’t know about.

    Maybe Bridenstine has inside knowledge about the management capabilities of the rival centers, or the people involved, Maybe he’s decided to downgrade existing human spaceflight offices right and left and cobber up a structure better suited to Artemis. Worth noting, ruminating a bit, that for a couple of years before he ran for Congress, Bridenstine ran a space museum in Oklahoma. He probably met some of these NASA managers along the way and formed some opinions about them, he probably picked up some notions about what can be expected from MSFC and JSC well before coming Administrator.

  • mike shupp

    Pzatchok —

    I’ve got no argument against your cynicism. I think the Gateway stays alive as NASA’s method of keeping their options open. Some sort of lunar satellite might be useful if a long term lunar base ever gets built, some other sort might be useful if no base is built and astronauts just get down to the ground occasionally a la Apollo, yet another might be useful if humans never touch the moon again and robot machinery just throws up some water or tanks of oxygen and hydrogen for fueling other spacecraft. And maybe Democrats will get into the White House soon, kill the Artemis program, and resuscitate something like Obama’s grab-an-asteroid-and-maybe-go-to-Mars scheme (although actually I think this is dead dead dead).

    So all these options stay alive if NASA puts a tin can flying about the Moon, calls it an interim Gateway, and goes back to sleep until 2028. Which is ten years away, near enough. Time enough to change Presidents. Time enough to see what sort of rival in space China will be, time enough to see what appeals to our Canadian-European-Russian-Israeli-Arabian-Japanese partners in manned space exploration, time enough to see how well ISS holds up, time enough to see what economic and productivity gains make conceivable for future space plans; time enough to see what long run goals American tax payers will support.

    Ten wonderful years to do near nothing at all, and brag every day about American Space Leadership!

  • Mike Borgelt

    Don’t worry, nothing will come of this except wasting money. I’ll be surprised if any hardware gets flown.

  • Edward

    Terry Pickett wrote: “Time to give manned space flight to the private sector and concentrate on what they do best: deep space probes.

    The thinking is good, but the timing is bad. NASA is definitely excellent at deep space probes, astronomy, and planetary science, but commercial space is not yet ready for prime time, where manned spaceflight is concerned. Maybe in five years, maybe a decade, maybe longer, but not this year.

    The commercial companies lack two things to be ready for prime time. First: private funding for development of new manned spacecraft. Blue Origin is working with private money for a suborbital spacecraft, but even with a large pool of money, this is taking two decades to develop. NASA is providing the incentive and much of the funds for developing the CCDev (Commercial Crew Development program) manned spacecraft. NASA also provides the initial customer base. Three companies that are developing commercial space stations are potential future customers for commercial manned spacecraft, and eventually there will be a market for deep space commercial manned spacecraft, such as Starship — which is the greatest hope for prime time readiness, as it is being developed with private funding.

    Commercial companies also lack experience with manned spacecraft. They are also pretty new to unmanned spacecraft that dock with manned facilities (e.g. ISS). In the early days of aviation, people dying in plane crashes were not seen as too much of a problem, because they were fairly rare, and personal safety was not as much of a concern as it is today. Eventually, passenger safety became a concern and the FAA was created. These days, we have the concern for safety, but not the experience to be able to assure safety in spaceflight, and as passengers start to die in spacecraft accidents, there could be a terrible backlash that harms the ability to advance the safety of spacecraft.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXbdJ3kyVyU (7 minutes; Bill Whittle: “The Deal”)
    (By the way: a passenger was killed in a Southwest Airlines 737 on 17 April 2018 when an engine failed and debris broke a window and nearly pulled her out the window. 16 years, 5 months, 5 days is the new record to beat.)

    pzatchok asked the rhetorical question: “Why is the Gateway there?

    It is part of that bad management that Robert talks about. Gateway is there to provide a destination for SLS, but now that we are going to the Moon, that is SLS’s new destination. Gateway is just an expensive and worse-than-useless holdover from a time when SLS had no reason to live. Gateway does not have a good reason to live, and never did.

    SLS now has a good reason for life, but the question is what to do with it when it (soon) becomes obsolete from upcoming much less expensive commercial manned spacecraft and launch vehicles.

    The real tragedy of this situation is that rather than being a serious program that retained Bush’s Moon destination, SLS became a political pork barrel for politicians to take back home to brag what they had brought to their constituents. Having the system became its own goal, rather than having a goal that makes the system worth having.

    We are so not ready for a lunar space station. What we really need is not Project Artemis but a more direct path to the Moon, perhaps called Project Selene. Once we have a lunar base in place that has a lot of traffic then a lunar space station as a way point can be considered for whether it is practical.

    mike shupp wrote: “maybe Democrats will get into the White House soon, kill the Artemis program, and resuscitate something like Obama’s grab-an-asteroid-and-maybe-go-to-Mars scheme (although actually I think this is dead dead dead).

    The various asteroid proposals never got much response from the American pubic. The Space Shuttle and space station were talked about more than some silly asteroid mission. Even the asteroid scientists were not enthusiastic, because they believe that they can still get more bang for their buck with unmanned robotic missions. They probably can.

    We hardly hear much about the new Moon mission, because it does not enthuse the American public. Mars is more popular; there is currently more popular science fiction about Mars than most other proposals. “The Martian” and the recent television series “Mars” are two examples of Mars being a popularly imagined destination. Going to an asteroid is not on anyone’s radar, and never should have been. There is no need for it, yet.

    time enough to see what long run goals American tax payers will support.

    I see a problem among space enthusiasts. Many are still of the mindset that NASA is the future of manned space. The problem with depending upon NASA is that it is only able to do what “American tax payers will support,” meaning our government representatives, and this is a limited amount of exploration. Note that our government representatives have only been willing to support a disappointing space shuttle, and an expensive space station. Returning to the Moon or going to Mars have not been popular options among the representatives. Dependence upon government funding severely limits where we go, what we explore, and what we do in space. As we have seen, governments do not mind being inefficient and ineffective, just so long as the money is spent among the constituents.

    I see a solution among space entrepreneurs. Many are of the mindset that they are limited only by whatever they can get private funding to do. Early on, this was communication satellites. Recently, this has expanded to remote Earth observation, suborbital space tourism, and inexpensive commercial launches that sometimes use reusable first stages and shrouds. Private companies are now talking about going to both the Moon and Mars. They may be able to create rockets and spacecraft that are inexpensive enough for them to find private funding to do both — maybe even before the governments with the deep pockets can do either. As we have seen, in order to stay in business private companies must be efficient and effective with their spending.

    NASA is encouraging private commercial companies to do as much as they can. This encouragement includes purchasing services directly from these companies, services such as resupplying the ISS, taking people to and from the ISS, providing Earth observation data, providing weather data, and now NASA is buying unmanned lunar exploration services. Because of this encouragement, private investment in commercial space companies is increasing.

    When American taxpayers no longer pay for going to destinations in space, they will complain much less about the expense of going there. When commercial companies start going to the Moon and to Mars for less cost than NASA or other governments spend, then the taxpayers will want these companies to do the spending. The best part is that the benefits of going there will be much more appreciated, because these companies will have to make money from these benefits, whereas governments need not demand much in practical benefits.

    When we let government make the choices, all we get is what government wants; sometimes that is only pork. When we make our own choices, we get what we want.

    The space entrepreneurs are serious about space travel, but as Bill Whittle suggested in “The Deal” video, above, it will be a while before the rest of us know how serious we all are about space travel.

    Once governments stop being the primary buyers of space services and data and the majority buyers become companies, universities, organizations, and individuals, then we will see commercial space become the driver of where we go, what we explore, and what we do in space. Both the Moon and Mars will be among these. We will go to the asteroids — or even grab an asteroid — only when there is enough benefit to doing so.

  • Richard M

    Hello Mike,

    “Moving on to Shelby, he’s just one guy, y’know? His name keeps popping up for space buffs, but he might as well be invisible for pretty much all the political and economic websites I hit, so he might not be swinging all that much weight in the Senate.”

    Richard Shelby is the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

    There are only a few people on the Hill more powerful than that, and you can count them on one hand with fingers left over.

  • pzatchok

    I would like to see a small budget program funded in part by the government but mostly by private funds from any source.

    A small budget project to add a full life support system to the Bigalow module already at the ISS.
    Power would more than likely have to be borrowed from the ISS but eventually a docking module with solar panels could be added to the other end (away from the ISS).
    Aim for 30, 60, and 90 day goals with out any resupplies.
    The new docking/Solar panel module could even have small reaction rockets on it so that eventually it could be separated from the ISS to be a fully independent station.

    Make each system fully removable so any systems that do not make the cut can be removed and replaced by the next private companies try. Every success and failure is a private company move forward.

  • Edward

    pzatchok wrote: “I would like to see a small budget … project to add a full life support system to the Bigalow module already at the ISS.

    Bigelow Aerospace already has done better. It has two free-flying test habitats on orbit, demonstrating their ability to operate independently in space.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genesis_I

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genesis_II

    The BEAM module on the ISS demonstrates that Bigelow’s habitats are man-rated.

    The delay in Bigelow putting independent habitats in space for human use (research, space tourism, etc.) is due to the delays in getting Crew Dragon and Starliner operational. Bigelow’s plans seem to be to begin operations a couple of years after the first commercial manned spacecraft becomes operational. About a decade ago, Bigelow put up an X-Prize type award for anyone to create a commercial manned spacecraft by 2015. The company had intended to have operational habitats by now.

    Below is a link to another idea that Bigelow had, but I have not heard much about this idea recently:
    https://www.universetoday.com/137553/bigelow-ula-sending-habitat-lunar-orbit-2022/

    Bigelow has plans for the future, too:
    http://bigelowaerospace.com/pages/firstbase/

  • mike shupp

    Richard M–

    Thunk! Just imagine me stretched out on the floor, having tripped over my own (long extended) tongue!

    But thanks.

  • pzatchok

    I do not think any of those Bigalow modules are anything more than just rooms.

    At least none have a full environmental system. Air and water recycling and so on.

    As some say we do not have any private companies with sufficient experience making those systems yet.
    So while The Beam module is attached to the ISS now would be a great time to design, install and test those systems for cheap.
    As we all know NASA will not accept anything not tested in space first before human use.

    The two Genesis modules are not viable for further use. Not in good orbits to be recovered and moved easily and they are a bit small.

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