Tag Archives: Johnson Space Center

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.

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Texas and Alabama fight over space pork

Turf war: Several powerful Texas lawmakers announced yesterday their opposition to NASA’s decision to give the lead management for the next lunar lander to the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

The question is which Center will manage development of the landers, a plum assignment. NASA plans to procure them through public-private partnerships rather than traditional contracts. The actual design will be determined by whatever companies win the contracts, but NASA’s concept is for a trilogy of vehicles: a transfer vehicle to take the crew from the Gateway to a lower lunar orbit, then a descent vehicle to take them to the surface and an ascent vehicle to return them to Gateway.

…According to Ars Technica, … NASA is assigning overall responsibility for the lunar lander program to Marshall, which will also oversee acquisition of the transfer and descent vehicles. JSC will oversee the ascent vehicle.

In a letter to Bridenstine today, Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and Rep. Brian Babin, all Republicans, expressed surprise and asked Bridenstine to reconsider. They argue that JSC should be in charge of the entire program, not just one of the three vehicles. Marshall’s expertise is in rocketry while JSC is “ground zero for human space exploration.”

They also disagree with splitting the work between two Centers, “an unnecessary and counterproductive departure from the unquestionable success” of the lander for the Apollo program.

This fight is not over who will actually build anything, but how to distribute the pork. In truth, the NASA agency that does this “management” does almost nothing. It is the contractor that builds the spacecraft. You could condense the management into a team of less two dozen (and that’s probably high). Instead, NASA and these politicians use the contractors to justify the existence of whole departments and hundreds of employees and large facilities, all of which are mostly irrelevant, especially if the Trump administration is serious about letting private industry do the job.

Worse, this fight — and NASA’s need to make these politicians happy — is forcing the agency to turn the work once again into a Frankenstein monster, distributing responsibility in absurd ways. I guarantee that in the end the management will not all go to Texas, meaning that the management of the different contractors will be split to different agencies, making for a very inefficient and badly managed program.

The result is going to be, as always, delays, cost overruns, bad designs, a lot of wasted money, and little accomplished.

I want to make special note of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in this affair. He ran for president as a new conservative, out to drain the swamp of Washington. Now, as senator, he is increasingly becoming captured by that swamp, participating in all the same corruption he railed against during his presidential run.

If he was really serious about draining the swamp, he would be pushing to trim NASA’s management, both in Alabama and in Texas. Instead he is fighting to build it up.

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