Tag Archives: Gateway

NASA considering consolidating two Gateway launches into one

Capitalism in space: NASA’s Artemis program is now considering using a single launch to place two different Gateway modules into space, rather than two separate launches.

Originally, NASA wanted to launch the PPE and HALO modules – together representing the absolute bare minimum needed to build a functional Gateway – on separate commercial rockets in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Now, according to NASA associate administrator Doug Loverro, the space agency has made the decision to launch both modules simultaneously on the same commercial rocket.

This decision was made in large part because it makes sense from a technical simplicity and overall efficiency standpoint but also because several commercial launch vehicles – either currently operational or soon to be – are set to debut extremely large payload fairings. As a combined payload, the Gateway PPE and HALO modules would be too big for just about any existing launch vehicle, while the tiny handful it might fit in lack the performance needed to send such a heavy payload to the Moon.

Falcon Heavy apparently has the performance needed, as NASA used the rocket and a new stretched fairing developed by SpaceX for military customers as a baseline to determine whether PPE and HALO could launch together. Given that NASA could have technically used any of the vehicles expected to have large payload fairings for that analysis, the explicit use and mention of Falcon Heavy rather strongly suggests that the SpaceX rocket is a front runner for the new combined launch contract. This isn’t exactly surprising, given that the massive rocket has already completed three successful launches and will attempt at least another four missions between now and 2023.

Note the rocket that is not mentioned: SLS.

My regular readers know my consistent opposition to Gateway. That opposition was based on its initial design, depending for launch and operations entirely on NASA’s SLS rocket, and requiring it to be built before we landed on the Moon. Based on the SLS program’s track record, I believed Gateway would become, like SLS, nothing more than a pork barrel project accomplishing nothing but funneling government payroll to congressional districts while failing to launch any missions into space.

If NASA however is shifting gears, and aiming to allow private enterprise to build, launch, and operate Gateway, for considerably less cost and time, than Gateway might actually be of some value, mostly because there is actually a chance it might really be built, within a few short years.

I remain skeptical however. I still have questions about this lunar station’s utility, at this time. We might be spending a lot of money for a space station that won’t get us anywhere. Or maybe if NASA rethinks it properly it could provide us the real opportunity to test construction of an interplanetary spaceship, in lunar orbit.

We will have to see how this plays out. This story does appear encouraging however.

Gateway dropped from NASA lunar landing plans

According to the head of NASA’s manned program, the agency has revised its 2024 lunar landing plans so that the Lunar Gateway space station is no longer needed.

In a conversation with the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee March 13, Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said he had been working to “de-risk” the Artemis program to focus primarily on the mandatory activities needed to achieve the 2024 landing goal.

…Later in the half-hour session, he said that means taking the lunar Gateway off the critical path for the 2024 landing. That was in part because of what he deemed a “high possibility” of it falling behind schedule since it will use high-power solar electric propulsion in its first module, the Power and Propulsion Element. “From a physics perspective, I can guarantee you we do not need it for this launch,” he said of the Gateway.

Loverro added that he wasn’t cutting Gateway, only pushing it back in order to prioritize their effort in getting to the lunar surface more quickly.

The Trump administration has been slowly easing NASA away from Gateway, probably doing so slowly in order to avoid upsetting some people in Congress (Hi there Senator Shelby!). They have probably looked at the budget numbers, the schedule, and the technical obstacles that are all created by Gateway, and have realized that they either can go to the Moon, or build a dead-end space station in lunar orbit. They have chosen the former.

Someday a Gateway station will be needed and built. This is not the time. I pray the Trump administration can force this decision through Congress.

Shelby delivers big bucks to SLS, Gateway

The boondoggle that never ends! The Senate has passed a 2020 budget that includes an increase of $1.2 billion for NASA’s Artemis program and Trump’s 2024 manned lunar landing proposal, almost all of which will go to Alabama, the home state of Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama).

In the Exploration section of the budget that does include the Moon mission, the big new rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS) would get nearly $2.6 billion in 2020, a $1.2 billion jump from this year. SLS is managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

The Orion crew capsule program would get $1.4 billion for continued development, the planned Lunar Gateway would get $500 million and lunar landers would get $744 million.

If the Democratically-controlled House ever decides to do anything but pursue sham impeachment charges against President Trump (such as approve a budget or deal with the Senate’s proposed commercial space legislation), it remains doubtful it will approve similar increases. During recent hearings on the budget, when the House was actually doing its real job, the Democrats were very hostile to funding Trump’s 2024 Moon proposal.

And even if the House should eventually go along, unlikely as that is, the money will not really get us closer to the Moon. The bulk of this cash is targeted to pay the salaries of NASA bureaucrats at Marshall, not actually build anything.

Meanwhile the second link above, “Cruz criticizes House for lack of action on commercial space legislation,” highlights the irresponsibility of the House under Democratic control.

Cruz and several other senators from both parties reintroduced the Space Frontier Act in March. The bill, favorably reported by the Senate Commerce Committee in April, calls for reforms of commercial launch and remote sensing regulations, which are already in progress, extends the authorization of the International Space Station through 2030 and elevates the Office of Space Commerce within the Commerce Department to the Bureau of Space Commerce, led by an assistant secretary.

The House, though, has not introduced a companion bill or related legislation, a lack of action that Cruz criticized. “It’s now been nearly a year since the Space Frontier Act has been on the House floor, and airlines, airline pilots and commercial space companies are no closer to getting greater certainty or having more of a voice on how our national airspace is managed than they were a year ago,” he said.

The Democrats might not agree with the language in this Senate bill, but they have an obligation to offer some alternative. Instead, they spend their time trying to overturn a legal election that they lost.

Orion capsule has no room for Moon rocks

Good enough for government work! It appears that the Orion capsule that NASA and Lockheed Martin have been building since 2004 — for a total cost of a mere $18 billion — with the express purpose of sending American astronauts on missions to the Moon and beyond, has been designed without any capability for bringing lunar samples back to Earth.

The article at the link is mostly a dive into NASA’s make-believe plans about what will happen on the proposed 2024 lunar landing being pushed by Trump, a mission as yet unfunded by Congress and dependent on a NASA rocket, SLS, that has yet to launch and is years behind schedule. Buried however at the very end of article however was this bombshell:

One of the limitations on returning samples is the Orion spacecraft, which will carry astronauts back from lunar orbit to Earth. Chavers said the Orion spacecraft does not have any designated space for a box of sample rocks taken from the lunar surface. “We just don’t know what the capability will be,” Chavers said of bringing rocks back to Earth inside Orion.

I hadn’t read this article in detail because of its nature, essentially a NASA puff piece pushing the agency’s fantasies. Hat tip to reader Scott M. for pointing it out.

If this absurd design failure doesn’t illustrate the incompetence of our modern NASA and its big contractors, I don’t know what does. I cannot imagine how it is possible for anyone involved in this project to leave out this tiny detail. What point is there to built a spaceship for returning astronauts from planetary missions if you don’t include the capacity to return samples? None.

In fact, this omission is further proof that the goal of Artemis (SLS, Orion, Gateway) is merely to suck money from the taxpayer, without really accomplishing anything. It is also further evidence of my previous conclusion, that NASA’S entire Orion concept is a lie.

Mitsubishi offers its H3 rocket to Artemis

Earlier this week Japan announced that it planned to become a partner in NASA’s Artemis program to build a space station in lunar orbit.

That announcement was very vague. Yesterday an official from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries might have offered the first real detail, suggesting that its new H3 rocket, scheduled for its first lift-off in 2020, could be used to launch components for Artemis, as early as 2025. The official described one option for using the H3, sending Japan’s upgraded ISS cargo freighter, the HTV-X, to Gateway in 2025 or 2026.

Launching an HTV-X cargo vessel to the gateway would require two H3 launches, he said. The first launch would send an HTV-X into an orbit around the Earth, he said. The second launch would send up an upper stage with an enlarged fuel tank to dock with the HTV-X and propel it to the Gateway, he said.

What was not stated was who will pay for this. The U.S.? Japan? Either way Mitsubishi, which has failed badly in garnering any of the international commercial satellite business for its H2B rocket, is clearly trying to attract business now for the H3 rocket, supposedly designed to be cheaper to launch.

NASA solicits proposals for manned lunar landers

NASA yesterday issued its final solicitation for proposals for private companies to build its manned lunar landers, with one major change resulting from comments to their earlier preliminary announcements.

Those comments resulted in some modifications intended to streamline the process and give companies more flexibility. One of the biggest is that NASA will no longer require lunar landers to dock with the lunar Gateway to serve as a staging point, at least for initial missions to the lunar surface.

“The agency’s preferred approach to a lunar landing is for the crew in the Orion spacecraft and the uncrewed human landing system to launch separately and meet in lunar orbit at the Gateway, which is critical to long-term exploration of the moon,” the agency said in a Sept. 30 statement about the solicitation. “NASA wants to explore all options to achieve the 2024 mission and remains open to alternative, innovative approaches.” [emphasis mine]

If these landers, using Orion, bypass Gateway in getting to the lunar surface, then there will literally be no reason to build that lunar station. NASA knows this, which is why they spent a lot of time hiding this fact by touting the requirement that any proposal must be designed to eventually dock with Gateway. The agency has been using Gateway to garner support on Capital Hill for its manned program, since the project will take decades to build and thus create a lot of jobs while generally taking few risks in space. (Politicians love this kind of space jobs program.) NASA now probably fears a pushback from both Congress and the big contractors building SLS and Gateway, and want to defuse that.

Nonetheless, this decision signals the Trump administration’s desire to get itself an off ramp from SLS and Gateway. Since NASA plans on issuing two lander contracts, I think they hope to issue one using Gateway, and one that does not. This way, when (not if) Gateway is delayed, they will still be able to fly manned lunar missions.

Yesterday’s solicitation also set a fast deadline for submissions, one month.

NASA awards Lockheed Martin long term Orion contract

The never-ending boondoggle: NASA today awarded Lockheed Martin a long term contract to build as many as twelve future Orion capsules.

OPOC is an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that includes a commitment to order a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 Orion spacecraft, with an ordering period through Sept. 30, 2030. Production and operations of the spacecraft for six to 12 missions will establish a core set of capabilities, stabilize the production process, and demonstrate reusability of spacecraft components.

“This contract secures Orion production through the next decade, demonstrating NASA’s commitment to establishing a sustainable presence at the Moon to bring back new knowledge and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Orion is a highly-capable, state-of-the-art spacecraft, designed specifically for deep space missions with astronauts, and an integral part of NASA’s infrastructure for Artemis missions and future exploration of the solar system.” [emphasis mine]

I honestly don’t know how NASA can commit to building these Orion capsules, when Congress has yet to fund them. I guess NASA has decided that Congress and elections are irrelevant, that they — as our anointed rulers in Washington — can make these decisions unilaterally, at their own whim.

One quote in the press release really stood out to me:

“As the only vehicle capable of deep space exploration, the Orion spacecraft is critical to America’s continued leadership,” said Rep. Brian Babin [R-Texas].

What a crock. Orion is pork, period. It is simple too small for any deep space mission, no matter what lies NASA tries to tell us. It will get us nowhere.

All this contract does is justify the existence of the Johnson Space Center, which really has no purpose since the retirement of the shuttle and the decision to fly future astronauts on privately built spacecraft. Having Orion to “manage” will convince people that the workers at Johnson are doing something, when really almost everything of importance will be done by Lockheed Martin.

This contract is also another component in NASA’s political strategy to get as many players in the space business committed to both Artemis and Gateway. Pretty soon they will have everyone on board, with big tax dollar bribes.

Meanwhile, what they are building won’t accomplish anything, and will strand us in lunar orbit for decades, while other countries land and learn how to build bases on other worlds.

Australia signs on to NASA’s Artemis project

Australia has committed $150 million to help its private sector contribute to NASA’s Artemis project and Trump’s goal to land a manned mission on the Moon by 2024, signing a joint agreement with NASA on September 21.

The government is investing $150 million over five years for Australian businesses and researchers to join NASA’s endeavour, and deliver key capabilities for the mission. “We’re backing Australian businesses to the moon, and even Mars, and back,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “We’re getting behind Australian businesses so they can take advantage of the pipeline of work NASA has committed to.”

The specifics, as quoted from the agreement, are somewhat vague.

This agreement is part of NASA’s effort to accumulate allies for both Artemis and its lunar space station Gateway. Australia has now joined Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. All of these nations and their space agencies desperately want the U.S. project to take place, most especially Gateway, as it will firm up funding for them all for decades.

NASA already has the big space contractors behind Artemis, though Boeing has expressed some opposition to Gateway. It has also awarded a lot of small contracts to a number of companies in the new commercial space industry to support Artemis. On top of this, it has distributed the project’s management within NASA so as to solidify support in Congress.

By accumulating these allies whose interests are in line with NASA’s goals, the agency hopes to convince Congress to fund the project. Unfortunately, the House, controlled by the Democrats whose only policy goal these days is to oppose Trump, have so far refused to fund the Trump 2024 manned mission.

Whether Artemis and Gateway will happen remains an open question. Congress wants the pork both projects will bring them. I predict that if both houses of Congress return to Republican control in 2020 they will fund this boondoggle.

Unfortunately, this won’t get us anywhere near the Moon, as the project as designed actually makes lunar landings more difficult and expensive. Getting from Gateway to the lunar surface requires more equipment and fuel than going directly there. If built as NASA has proposed, our astronauts will watch from Gateway as China and India land and begin settling the Moon.

But it will justify the spending of a lot of taxpayer money in congressional districts for decades to come. Hooray!

Boeing pushing to kill Gateway for more SLS funds?

Turf war! According to Eric Berger at Ars Technica today, the House hearings yesterday about Gateway and the Trump effort to complete a manned mission to the Moon by 2024 suggest that Boeing is lobbying to kill both Gateway as well as NASA’s effort to use multiple commercial rockets, in order to get its SLS rocket more funding.

Essentially, Boeing is getting almost no contracts in connection to Gateway. Furthermore, the much cheaper commercial rockets are a serious competitive threat to its SLS rocket. However, if Gateway was dropped and the money instead committed to building a more powerful upper stage for SLS, which is Boeing’s baby, the money would go to them. Moreover, doing this would make it unnecessary for NASA to use other commercial rockets, since SLS could do it all.

Berger’s analysis seems right on target. While Gateway is a bad idea, what Boeing proposes instead would be no better. As Berger notes,

What was surprising is that [lawmakers] at the hearing also appeared to be swayed by [Boeing’s] view that bypassing commercial rockets and the Gateway would lead to a simpler and faster lunar mission. “I believe there is value in developing commercial capabilities,” [one lawmaker] said toward the end of the hearing. However, she added, “I am concerned that the decisions are not being driven by what is most efficient or effective and what is most cost efficient.”

This is an interesting viewpoint given that commercial rockets cost $100 to $200 million, at most, versus the $1 billion to $2 billion cost of a single SLS rocket—not including the hundreds of millions of dollars, at a minimum, the agency would have to invest in Exploration Upper Stage development contracts with Boeing. Moreover, one of the commercial rockets—the Falcon Heavy—already exists and has flown three successful missions. Other boosters, including Blue Origin’s powerful New Glenn rocket, should be ready to fly in two or three years. An SLS rocket with the better upper stage almost certainly wouldn’t be ready by 2024, and NASA knows this.

“At this point, there is no path by which the Exploration Upper Stage will be ready for Artemis 3 in 2024,” the NASA administration source told Ars. “Hence, it is not in the critical path (for the Moon landing).”

This lobbying effort provides us a perfect illustration of the overall incompetence and corruption that permeates our government in Washington. No one there appears the slightest bit interested in serving the national interest. Instead, the focus is on how they can get politicians to give them money.

House hearing, and budget, raises doubts about 2024 Moon landing

Two events yesterday increased the likelihood that the Trump administration’s effort to complete a manned Moon landing by 2024 will not happen.

First, at hearings yesterday before the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, not only did a top NASA official express skepticism about the 2024 date, several key Democratic lawmakers added their own skepticism about the entire project.

Then, the Democratically-controlled House released a draft continuing resolution which included none of the extra $1.6 billion requested by the Trump administration for the 2024 Moon mission.

At the first link there is much discussion about the issues of Gateway, of using commercial launchers instead of SLS, of funding, and of the endless delays for SLS, of the management problems at SLS/Orion/Gateway. All these issues illustrate the hodgepodge and very disorganized project design that has represented SLS/Orion/Gateway from the beginning. SLS/Orion was mandated by Congress, with no clear mission. Gateway was tacked on later by NASA and the big space contractors building SLS (Boeing) and Orion (Lockheed Martin), with lobbying help from other international space agencies who want a piece of the Gateway action. None of it ever had a clear over-arching goal or concept related to the actual exploration of space. All of it was really only designed to justify pork spending in congressional districts.

As much as the Trump administration wants it, I do not see a path for its 2024 Moon landing. Congress, as presently structured, will not fund it, and SLS and Gateway are simply not the projects designed to make it happen.

The confusion at the hearings over Gateway also suggests that if this project gets going, it will only serve to drive a nail into the coffin of all American manned exploration, as run by our federal government. Too many vested interests are fighting over this boondoggle. In the end I think they will rip it apart and then reshape it into a Frankenstein monster.

The only hope for a real American vibrant manned space effort in the near future still appears to me to reside in the private sector’s own manned projects, which right now means SpaceX and its Starship.

Test cubesat to launch to Gateway lunar orbit

NASA has awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Systems to build a cubesat to test placement and operation in the orbit the agency wishes to place its Lunar Gateway space station.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) is expected to be the first spacecraft to operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. In this unique orbit, the CubeSat will rotate together with the Moon as it orbits Earth and will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.

The pathfinder mission represents a rapid lunar flight demonstration and could launch as early as December 2020. CAPSTONE will demonstrate how to enter into and operate in this orbit as well as test a new navigation capability. This information will help reduce logistical uncertainty for Gateway, as NASA and international partners work to ensure astronauts have safe access to the Moon’s surface. It will also provide a platform for science and technology demonstrations.

While proving the capability of cubesats for these unmanned planetary probes is all to the good, I must once again point out that making this orbit a way station on the way to the Moon actually makes it more difficult to get there. More fuel and equipment is required to transfer to the Moon once you are in Gateway’s planned orbit.

Based on our past experience with NASA boondoggles like this, Gateway will therefore act as a drag on future American lunar exploration. While other nations (China, India) will be landing on the surface, we will repeatedly find that our surface missions are delayed because of the added complexity of going from Earth to Gateway and then to the surface.

ISS partners okay Trump changes to Gateway

The various international nations that partner on ISS and wish to partner on NASA’s Gateway project issued a statement this week saying that they approve the changes imposed on that lunar space station by the Trump administration, all of which significantly delay their participation.

In an Aug. 28 statement, members of the station’s Multilateral Coordination Board (MCB), which includes the five space agencies involved in the ISS, said the Gateway is “a critical next step” in human space exploration and that they plan to contribute modules or other elements for the facility in lunar orbit.

“Looking to exploration activities beyond LEO, the MCB members reaffirmed their continued intention to cooperate on a human outpost in the lunar vicinity – Gateway,” the document, a summary of the board’s Aug. 6 meeting, stated. “Within a broader open architecture for human exploration, the MCB acknowledged the Gateway as a critical next step.”

The board offered a similar endorsement of the Gateway at a March 5 meeting. The statement from that meeting included a diagram of one Gateway configuration, with contributions from Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia, as well as the United States, identified.

Three weeks after that meeting, though, Vice President Mike Pence announced at a meeting of the National Space Council that the U.S. would speed up its lunar exploration timeline, seeking to land astronauts on the moon by 2024, rather than prior plans for a 2028 landing. NASA subsequently said that it would initially pursue a minimal Gateway needed for that 2024 landing, deferring full-fledged development of the Gateway for a second phase intended to enable “sustainable” lunar exploration in the second half of the 2020s. [emphasis mine]

The “minimal Gateway” that the Trump administration is presently pursuing is structured to shift focus from a space station in lunar orbit to landing on the Moon. This means that many of the later components of Gateway, to be built or used by these international partners, will be significantly delayed, or even made unnecessary.

So, why did these space agencies all endorse the new plan that circumscribed their participation? They have no choice. Without NASA’s SLS, they have no way to get to the Moon. And without Gateway, SLS has no reason to exist. These government space agencies need SLS (as ephemeral as SLS might be) because it is the only free government launch option available to them. They hope, by endorsing what the Trump administration has done, to convince it to go along with the complete Gateway project, including the continued funding of SLS, thus creating a gigantic international boondoggle (paid for mostly by the U.S.) that will justify all their manned space programs.

This is another reason to dump SLS. Wouldn’t it be better for the U.S. to have its private commercial space launch industry sell its goods to these leeches, rather than have them living off our taxpayers’ dime? We will gain nothing from them with Gateway, as it is presently structured, while they feed off of us. If instead they needed to buy launch services from private rockets, the profits would accrue to U.S. companies and citizens, and help encourage competition and more innovation.

If we instead buy into this international boondoggle, we will spend a lot of money for very little space exploration, even as we make the bureaucrats at six government space agencies (including NASA) very happy.

Marshall wins Artemis manned Moon lander pork

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.

Cygnus undocks from ISS, will remain in orbit for five more months

Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo capsule has undocked from ISS, but will remain in orbit until December.

First, the capsule, dubbed the S.S. Roger Chaffee, will deploy a bunch of cubesats and nanosats. Then,

Northrop Grumman plans several months of long-duration spaceflight experiments using the Cygnus spacecraft after release of the CubeSats. Four miniaturized control moment gyroscopes are flying on the cargo freighter for the first time, and engineers will assess their performance in controlling the spacecraft’s pointing without consuming rocket fuel.

Ground teams also want to evaluate how the Cygnus spacecraft’s avionics function on a long-duration mission, and Northrop Grumman plans to demonstrate dual Cygnus operations for the first time after the launch of the company’s next resupply mission — NG-12 — in October.

Northrop Grumman has gotten a NASA contract to use Cygnus as the basis for the habitable module of NASA’s Lunar Gateway project, and this extended flight is a way to test the engineering for that module now during operations.

Though I continue to have many doubts about Gateway, I laud Northrop Grumman for this approach. It speeds things up and saves money.

Northrop Grumman to build Gateway habitation module

The boondoggle never dies! NASA has decided it will give a sole source contract to Northrop Grumman to build the minimal habitation module of its Gateway lunar space station, based on that company’s Cygnus unmanned freighter.

NASA is also bypassing a traditional procurement process for the Minimal Habitation Module. Rather than requesting bids from industry, and then evaluating the responses, NASA plans to fast-track a contract with Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, an operating unit of Northrop Grumman formerly known as Orbital ATK.

The pressurized habitation compartment will be docked with the Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element in a stable near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon. NASA announced in May that Maxar Technologies won a contract worth up to $375 million to build the Power and Propulsion Element, which will provide electricity and maneuvering capability for the Gateway station using high-power plasma thrusters, but does not include any pressurized section.

The Gateway is a mini-space station NASA plans to build in an orbit that swings as close as 2,000 miles from the moon about once per week. The Gateway will act as a stopover and safe haven for astronauts heading for the moon’s surface, NASA is designing the mini-station to accommodate myriad scientific experiments and engineering demonstrations required for more ambitious ventures deeper into the solar system, and eventually Mars.

The Trump administration wants to focus on a lunar landing by 2024, and so it forced NASA to reduce its Gateway boondoggle to the minimum necessary to make that lunar landing possible. This module, with the service module that Maxar is building, is that minimum Gateway.

And why do we even need this? Well, it appears that SLS and Orion and the not-yet-built or even designed lunar lander, by themselves, are not capable of getting astronauts to the Moon. A way station is somehow required.

Note also that the contract amount remains a secret, redacted from the NASA paperwork. Note also that NASA “still plans to add more elements to the Gateway, including contributions from international partners, after accomplishing the human landing on the moon.”

In other words, this is a typical Washington swamp buy-in, connived by the big space contractors and NASA to weasel this boondoggle into existence, even though the Trump administration is not interested. By keeping the cost secret at this point, they avoid some bad press and the possibility of political opposition. Their plan is to get the minimal Gateway funded and launched into space, and then demand more money to pay for the whole thing once the project exists.

This is what NASA does routinely, for all its projects. It lies about the initial cost, low balling it, so as to get the politicians to buy in. The result for the past two decades however is that NASA fails to build much of anything, while wasting gobs of taxpayer dollars on non-productive jobs here on Earth.

Do not be surprised if we see the same with Gateway. In fact, I would bet on it.

NASA releases draft commercial Gateway resupply plan

Capitalism in space? NASA today released a draft document outlining its plan for having commercial companies provide cargo to its Lunar Gateway station.

NASA is creating the Gateway Logistics Services (GLS) arena that will oversee supply delivery efforts to the lunar outpost. The draft Request For Proposals document, released by NASA last Friday, will form the basis for the formal Request For Proposals that companies will use later this summer to submit their bids for selection as part of the GLS program.

The draft document will be reviewed by commercial industry providers who will then submit feedback for NASA to consider as the agency formalizes the document.

While not official in its entirety, large portions of the document will remain unchanged or only undergo minor tweaks/clarifications at this point. Thus, the draft provides excellent insight into services, pricing, and timelines that commercial companies will have to meet if selected to participate in the GLS offerings. Of note, any company selected to fly GLS missions would receive a guarantee of two missions, minimum, and each awarded contract would not exceed $7 billion (USD). The total number of contracts NASA can award is not constrained via the language in the draft GLS solicitation document.

The reason I question above whether this will be capitalism in space is because of one new rule NASA wants to impose on its commercial vendors:

Unlike the [ISS cargo] contracts which did not carry a “one successful flight” requirement if changes to the launch vehicle were made after initial certification (both the Falcon 9 and the Antares underwent significant design changes after their [cargo] flights began – with some of those changes debuting on [later cargo] flights), the draft GLS language seems to indicate that NASA would seek to prohibit launch vehicle design changes debuting on GLS contract flights.

If the draft language becomes formal, the GLS contracts would require a launch vehicle that undergoes a design change to complete one successful flight of those changes before its next GLS mission is allowed to proceed.

I can see no reason for this rule other than to prevent private companies from making NASA’s own slow development process look bad. Or to put it another way, NASA wants to prevent the U.S. from getting things done fast in space, because that will prevent the agency from stretching out development endlessly, as it routinely does.

The GLS plan does propose one very good change in NASA policy. It proposes to break the SLS monopoly on launching Gateway components. For years NASA has said that only SLS could launch Gateway components, something that is patently absurd. The Trump administration has been pushing against that shortsighted position, and this plan accelerates that push. It will instead allow commercial companies to compete for those launches, which puts more pressure on SLS to deliver or die.

House ignores request for more NASA money for moon mission

A House committee today approved a NASA budget that ignored the Trump administration’s request for $1.6 billion more money to support its attempt to land a manned mission on the Moon by 2024.

Instead, the committee shifted more money into earth science and Gateway.

Whether this budget is what ends up being enacted remains to be seen. It does appear however that Trump will have great trouble funding his Moon project. Sadly, that lack of funding does not mean the overall federal budget is coming under control. On the contrary, it appears the Democratic-controlled House simply wants to spend lots of money, but on different things.

Independent study finds NASA’s Mars plans infeasible

Surprise, surprise! An independent study, ordered by Congress, has determined that NASA’s Mars exploration plans are infeasible and cannot get the U.S. to the red planet in 2033 as NASA claims.

STPI, at NASA’s direction, used the strategy the agency had laid out in its “Exploration Campaign” report, which projects the continued use of the Space Launch System and Orion and development of the lunar Gateway in the 2020s. That would be followed by the Deep Space Transport (DST), a crewed spacecraft that would travel from cislunar space to Mars and back. NASA would also develop lunar landers are related system to support crewed missions to the lunar surface, while also working on systems for later missions to the surface of Mars.

That work, the STPI report concluded, will take too long to complete in time to support a 2033 mission. “We find that even without budget constraints, a Mars 2033 orbital mission cannot be realistically scheduled under NASA’s current and notional plans,” the report states. “Our analysis suggests that a Mars orbital mission could be carried out no earlier than the 2037 orbital window without accepting large technology development, schedule delay, cost overrun, and budget shortfall risks.”

I guarantee that even if NASA got a blank check from Congress it could not make the 2037 date above either, not if they intend to use SLS, Orion, and Gateway.

This report was ordered by Congress as part of the building political desire in Washington to shift gears away from SLS and to the private sector. SLS has too many vested interests, both in and out of Congress, for the cowards in Washington to just shut it down. In order to do so, they need ammunition they can use against those vested interests. This report, though stating the obvious, gives them that ammunition, as it carries an official think tank stamp, something the mediocre minds in DC require for them to take any forthright action.

At the same time, I can see the corrupt porkmeisters in Congress, such as Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), drooling over this report. They see the gigantic budget and endless time it estimates NASA will need to go to Mars with SLS, Orion, and Gateway as a feature, not a bug.

“As such,” the report concludes, “a mission to Mars orbit in 2033 is infeasible from a technology development and schedule perspective.” The next launch window, in 2035, was also deemed infeasible because of technology development work, pushing the earliest possible date for flying the mission to the following launch window in 2037.

STPI also estimated the cost of carrying out this first Mars mission in 2037. The report estimated the total cost of just those elements needed for the Mars mission, including SLS, Orion, Gateway, DST and other logistics, at $120.6 billion through fiscal year 2037. Of that total, $33.7 billion has been spent to date on SLS and Orion development and associated ground systems.

Another $90 billion in pork, spread over twenty years! Wow, that’s exactly what many of the thieves in Washington like. This wasteful spending won’t serve the nation’s needs by making us a competitive space-faring nation, but it will distribute a lot of money to the people who donate campaign dollars to these politicians.

Which way will we go? I have no idea right now. The voters could make a difference, if the voters finally decided to clean out Congress. I see no evidence of them doing so, however, so expect bad things for the future.

Advisory panel to Space Council pans Gateway

The advisory panel to the Space Council gave NASA’s Gateway lunar orbiting platform low marks in a meeting in Washington yesterday.

NASA’s plan for returning to the Moon met with opposition today at a meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group (UAG). Not only members of the UAG, but former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who was there as a guest speaker on other topics, offered his personal view that NASA is moving too slowly and the lunar orbiting Gateway is unnecessary.

Makes sense to me, especially based on the description of Gateway put forth by NASA at the meeting:

In the first part of the 2020s, NASA plans to launch series of very small and later mid-sized robotic landers and rovers, while at the same time building a small space station, currently called the Gateway, in lunar orbit. The Gateway is much smaller than the International Space Station (ISS) and would not be permanently occupied. Crews would be aboard only three months a year and eventually the Gateway would be a transit point for humans travelling between Earth and the lunar surface or Mars.

The presentation also said under this plan that Americans would not land on the Moon until 2028.

It is all fantasy. I guarantee if the government goes with Gateway it will not land on the Moon before 2035, and that is optimistic. Tied as it is to very expensive SLS and the government way of building anything, Gateway will likely see at least five years of delays, at a minimum. Remember also that the first manned launch of SLS is not expected now before 2024, and will likely have a launch cadence of less than one launch per year. How NASA expects to complete Gateway and then land on the Moon only four years later, using this rocket, seems very unrealistic to me.

This does not mean Americans won’t get to the Moon sooner however. I fully expect private enterprise to do it in less than a decade, and for far cheaper. Eventually the dunderheads in government will realize this, but we must give them time to realize it. Their brains work slowly.

Roscosmos head meets with Chinese

The head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, held meetings this week with China, discussing possible future space cooperation.

Russia can’t really afford to do much right now on its own, but it also wants to negotiate the best deal it can with anyone it works with in space. These discussions are therefore specifically designed to give Rogozin some negotiating leverage when he meets with NASA’s head Jim Bridenstine on October 10.

Russia considering getting out of Gateway

The new colonial movement: In expressing a desire not to play a secondary role in its next space station, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin said today that Russia might pull out of its partnership with NASA in building its Gateway lunar station.

Russia agreed last year to work with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on plans for the moon-orbiting Deep Space Gateway, which will serve as a staging post for future missions.

But the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, said Russia might exit the joint program and instead propose its own lunar orbit space station project. “The Russian Federation cannot afford to play the second fiddle role in it,” he was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency, without much further elaboration.

A spokesman for Roscosmos said later that Russia had no immediate plans to leave the project.

Russia’s problem is that they simply don’t have the cash to build their own lunar station. They could build a new station of their own in Earth orbit, and that might be what they end up doing. In fact, based on the knowledge they gained from both Mir and ISS, they might be able to design that station for short interplanetary flights, such as to the Moon and back, once built.

If I was Rogozin, that is exactly what I would do. Get out of NASA’s boondoggle, and build something in Earth orbit that will really demonstrate interplanetary travel.