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Lunar orbit beckons: NASA’s next four years of human spaceflight

Posted By Jason Davis

14-12-2016 6:00 CST

Topics: Horizon Goal

On the day of the 2016 election here in the United States, the prediction gurus at FiveThirtyEight gave Hillary Clinton a 71.4 percent chance of becoming the next president. The New York Times was more optimistic, at 85 percent.

If elections were a merely a matter of statistical probability, one way to envision those odds is picturing four poker chips in a pouch: three blues for Clinton, and one red for Trump. On November 8, America reached inside, and against the odds, pulled out the red chip. 

As we've seen throughout our Horizon Goal series, presidential transitions can be a time of great uncertainty for government agencies, including NASA. This would have been the case for both Clinton and Trump, but whereas Clinton represented the status quo, Donald Trump has vowed to upend it. 

The president-elect tends to defy analysis; nevertheless, in this, our sixth and final Horizon Goal segment, we'll try to unpack the next four years of NASA's human spaceflight program.

Will the Trump administration keep the agency on course for sending humans to Mars in the 2030s? Are changes coming for the way for the cornerstone vehicles of those plans, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule? And how will NASA set up shop beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972? 

Soaring past the stars and stripes

NASA

Soaring past the stars and stripes
What will be the fate of NASA’s Space Launch System under President Donald Trump?

Need to catch up on our Horizon Goal series?

Part 1: How The Columbia Tragedy Shifted NASA's Sights To The Moon
Part 2: 'Apollo on Steroids': The Rise and Fall of NASA's Constellation Moon Program
Part 3: Space in transition: How Obama's White House charted a new course for NASA
Part 4: To Mars, with a monster rocket: How politicians and engineers created NASA's Space Launch System
Part 5: The flexible path to Mars: SLS, Orion and NASA's Asteroid Redirect Mission

Transition fever

President-elect Trump's transition team already has several advisors assessing NASA's current programs. Trump must also nominate a new NASA administrator to replace Charles Bolden, who was appointed by President Obama. The administrator's job is to run NASA and implement the president's space policies.

What will those policies be?

It's hard to draw firm conclusions based on the biographies of Trump's NASA team. It includes former agency officials who served under both Bolden and his predecessor, Michael Griffin. There's a retired astronaut, a lunar researcher and a physicist. One advisor is an ardent supporter of newer firms like SpaceX, but balancing that choice—and seemingly defying a possible conflict of interest—is the inclusion of the vice president of corporate development for Dynetics, a major NASA contractor with a stake in the Space Launch System.

Most everything else known about possible Trump space policies comes from Robert Walker, a Pennsylvania House Republican from 1977 to 1997 who once chaired the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Walker served as a space policy advisor to the Trump campaign. He was brought aboard by Peter Navarro, who was, at one point, a key Trump economic advisor. With Navarro working out of Trump Tower in New York, the duo drafted campaign space policies and published two op-eds in SpaceNews.

I spoke with Walker less than a week after the election. He said the new administration plans to increase the level of coordination between government agencies with a stake in space operations by re-establishing the National Space Council, which was last convened during the President George H.W. Bush administration. The council, which would report to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, would aim to combine resources and drive out inefficiencies.

When I asked Walker for an example of a cross-governmental inefficiency, he pointed to heavy lift launch vehicles.

"At the present time, you have three—really four—entities that are developing heavy launch vehicles," he said, presumably referring to NASA's Space Launch System, SpaceX's Falcon Heavy (and a future super-heavy variant bound for Mars), Blue Origin's New Glenn, and United Launch Alliance's Vulcan.

"So the question for the space council would be: Do all four of those need essentially a similar vehicle, or would we be better off having just one or two of those being being developed and then used across the breadth of the government?"

Walker was quick to note the campaign did not take a stance on favoring a particular vehicle. 

"Everything that we're talking about is anticipatory, because people immediately want to say 'Well, are you talking about eliminating the SLS?'" he said. "There have been no specific decisions made. We're forward-looking on this, to say that the National Space Council could serve the interest of space policy by assuring that that the nation is not duplicating efforts unnecessarily."

Preemptive cost-cutting

NASA's Orion spacecraft could also find itself spotlighted by the National Space Council. The capsule, originally part of the return-to-the-moon Constellation program, was axed by the Obama administration in February 2009, only to be resurrected two months later to placate congressional critics.

Boeing and SpaceX are now building similar gumdrop-shaped vehicles to send astronauts to the International Space Station, though neither spacecraft is currently outfitted for deep space. Lockheed Martin, Orion's prime contractor, recently preemptively announced they plan to slash future Orion construction costs by 50 percent.

In mid-November, NASA issued an information request on how the agency might make the SLS and Orion programs more affordable. While language within the request led some to believe NASA is cracking open the door for cheaper commercial alternatives, administrator Bolden disputes this, as does Greg Williams, the deputy associate administrator for policy and plans in NASA's human spaceflight division. (Williams is not a political appointee; he will remain aboard during the Trump administration.)

"I would take issue with the characterization that we've cracked the door open to a commercial replacement—that's not where we're headed," said Williams during a recent phone interview. "The RFI (Request for Information) really is focused on how we can reduce production operations costs for the systems that we are developing."

Stiff opposition

A move to cut either SLS or Orion would almost certainly face opposition from some Congressional factions, which have the power to push back on White House policies through spending bills.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who famously introduced SLS in 2011 while NASA administrator Charles Bolden watched from the sidelines, is the ranking member of the Senate's NASA oversight committee. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, where NASA's Orion program is based, chairs the subcommittee that must approve Trump's choice for NASA administrator. And Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who represents NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, where SLS is managed, heads the appropriations committee that controls NASA's budget.

On Friday, Congress passed a temporary spending bill to keep the government open through April 2017, but not before adding specific provisions to fund SLS and Orion at higher levels—something they have done consistently during the Obama administration.

The Senate also unanimously passed a NASA Transition Bill encouraging the Trump administration to stay the course on SLS and Orion, while maintaining Mars as a long-term destination. Though the House has adjourned for the year—meaning the bill will not become law—the Senate's action can be seen as a policy statement on how it would react to wholesale changes for NASA's human spaceflight program.

Whether or not the battle would be as bloody as it was in 2010, when the Obama administration canceled Constellation, remains to be seen. One aerospace industry consultant, speaking with me on the condition of anonymity, said privatizing space transportation was more controversial six years ago, when the industry had less success under its belt.

"Fundamentally the scenario has changed, due to the fact there are potential commercial alternatives," the consultant said. "That does not mean Congressional opposition won't be fierce; it simply means there is more nuance to the situation now than there was then."

Apollo 17 Earthrise

NASA

Apollo 17 Earthrise
Human beings have not orbited the moon since 1972. This photograph of an Earthrise was captured by the crew of Apollo 17.

Next step: lunar orbit

The first crewed SLS-Orion flight will send humans on a brief trip to cislunar space between 2021 and 2023. For the rest of the 2020s, NASA plans to send astronauts on longer and more ambitious missions to lunar orbit. This could include visiting a boulder captured from a near-Earth asteroid, though whether Congress and the Trump administration will greenlight that part of the plan remains to be seen.

On its own, Orion can only stock enough air, water and food for a three-week trip. For longer missions, astronauts will need to live in something more akin to an ISS module. 

What that module might look like is the focus of NextSTEP, the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships program. Through NextSTEP, NASA is giving commercial partners funding to mature deep space habitat technologies.

The first round of NextSTEP contracts, announced in 2015, gave seven companies money to develop space habitats that would support a four-person crew in lunar orbit for 60 days. In August 2016, NASA gave out a second round of awards for six companies to spend 24 months developing habitat prototypes.

In the meantime, Greg Williams told me, NASA is trying to figure out what other countries are willing to contribute.

"The space station partners in particular are engaged in a joint study effort of a cislunar architecture," he said. "They're gaining understanding of what is technically possible, and what our plans are for evolving SLS and Orion, and our capabilities to reach cislunar space. And then as part of that they'll be able to get a clearer picture of where they might contribute."

Williams said that around 2018, NASA hopes to have a cislunar reference architecture—agency-speak for an initial plan—of what happens next.

As it currently stands, that plan would not include a trip to the moon's surface; the moon is merely an orbital stopover on the way to Mars. This policy was set by President Obama in 2010, and Mars was endorsed by the National Research Council as the most compelling 'Horizon Goal' for human spaceflight in 2014.

NASA has, however, indicated it would be willing to partner with international agencies or private companies wanting to fund the last leg of the journey to the moon's surface. 

Could the Trump administration change course, and direct NASA to lead the way back to the moon? Some say yes. Surface sojourns and lunar outposts could still be sold as being part of a larger journey to Mars; this strategy was endorsed by President George W. Bush in 2004 when he announced what would eventually became the Constellation program. 

But without a major budget increase, a NASA-funded moon landing would almost certainly delay the agency's Mars plans—if not postpone them indefinitely.

Ready for exploration

NASA / JPL / MSSS / Thomas Appéré

Ready for exploration
This slice of varied, rocky terrain inside Gale Crater on Mars was imaged by NASA's Curiosity rover in 2015.

A deluge of ISS traffic

As far as the companies receiving NextSTEP funds are concerned, getting in on the ground floor of NASA's deep space plans could represent a huge windfall.

Those companies are a blend of traditional aerospace firms and newer space startups. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin are pitching habitats for lunar orbit based on ISS modules. Orbital ATK wants to build enhanced versions of its Cygnus spacecraft, which already ships cargo to the ISS. Bigelow Aerospace envisions large, inflatable modules based on BEAM, the 16-cubic-meter habitat NASA installed on the ISS earlier this year.

Sierra Nevada, which hopes to start flying cargo to the ISS in 2019 using a miniaturized space shuttle, wants to combine inflatable technology with the shuttle's cargo module to build cislunar habs. There's also a study underway by Ixion—a three-company conglomerate that includes rocket provider United Launch Alliance—to turn a rocket's spent liquid oxygen tank into a pressurized, astronaut-friendly module. (A similar design called the "wet workshop" was once proposed for Skylab, America's first space station.)

Some of these concepts may need to be vetted in low-Earth orbit at the ISS.

As part of its quest to build a commercial space station, Bigelow hopes to launch a supersized version of BEAM called the B330 in 2020. The company has made it clear they'd like to try it out at the ISS. BEAM is scheduled to depart in 2018; the B330 would be 20 times bigger and increase the station's total pressurized capacity by 30 percent.

But Bigelow has competition: a company called Axiom headed up by former ISS program manager Mike Suffredini. Axiom hopes to build a space station module of its own, and launch it to the ISS as soon as 2020. The module would detach in 2024—the year the ISS is currently set to retire—and form the basis of a commercial space station.

Considering Boeing and SpaceX are also set to start flying vehicles to the ISS soon, the station's docking and berthing ports will soon be a scarce commodity. Anticipating a potential deluge of traffic, NASA recently solicited creative ways to add new modules to the station, including "unused attachment ports or non-standard attachment sites."

Inside BEAM

NASA

Inside BEAM
The crew of Expedition 47 poses inside BEAM, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module.

Full plate

Winston Churchill once said democracy is "the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." 

For NASA, this means programs are born out of compromise and coalition building, and are shaped by the political winds of the day—both partisan and parochial.

The agency's human spaceflight program has dealt with the uncertainties of presidential transitions before. And in four or eight years, it will do so again.

Even so, I couldn't help but ask Greg Williams if his colleagues at NASA headquarters were holding their breath to see what would happen—the implication being work would somehow pause while America's bureaucratic machinery ran its course.

"Nobody here is holding their breath," he said. "We're running like crazy in developing our current program. We've got a full plate of things to do."

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See other posts from December 2016

 

Read more blog entries about: Horizon Goal

Comments:

Arbitrary: 12/14/2016 08:45 CST

I would speculate that NASA will be given a clear target and be required to deliver tangible results soon. I don't think the Trump team will let any federal agency lull randomly like NASA has done for decades now. Many even seem to believe that NASA doesn't exist anymore since the shuttle was canceled. I bet an industrial leader will become NASA administrator and that it will be managed more like a company than an academic institute. I hope that nuclear power and propulsion in space will make its breakthrough now. Trump boys probably like space toys and won't say no to nuclear because of environmental concerns or because the left is against it. The military industrial complex should like nuclear. Together with a Moon program, nuclear would be a challenge for SpaceX. Nuclear should be easier for ULA to deal with for both political and industrial reasons. Suddenly Elon Musks huge investments in Solar power and batteries lose relevance for space flight. His chemical engines wouldn't stand a chance compared with a fission thermal engine. And he doesn't have a Moon rocket, Falcon Heavy is too small and the planned BFR Mars rocket is an overkill, and won't get NASA financing if Mars is put on hold. While SLS is very expensive, it is the world's only launcher that is made for the Moon. I think SpaceX must put more common core boosters on the Falcon Heavy in order to get a Lunar capable launcher, or they might completely miss the lucrative Lunar space market.

Bryan See: 12/14/2016 09:09 CST

With Trump's connections to Russia and the alt-right obvious, it's clear that Vladimir Putin, a thug, a murderer, a killer and a mafia gangster, wants to end America's space program by destroying liberalism in favor of their nationalistic authoritarian traditionalist worldview, which prevents progress and fuels hostility toward science and technology. Some of Trump's advisors, Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, appear to express anti-technology and anti-science opinions. In 2015, Putin blacklisted the Dynasty Foundation for being a foreign agent and perhaps fanned anti-scientific sentiments among the Russian population. All of these are a threat to our plans to leave Earth orbit (e.g. colonize Mars). Confined to one planet, humans are at risk of going the way of the dinosaurs if we're to be hit by some horrible, global catastrophe and, if survived, being placed under a world-spanning eternal authoritarian empire with no progress (as predicted by blind Bulgarian mystic Baba Vanga in 1979: "Everything will melt away like ice yet the glory of Vladimir, the glory of Russia are the only things that will remain. Russia will not only survive, it will dominate the world."; Vladimir is indeed Vladimir Putin). Either we’ll stay on earth forever and become victim to some kind of extinction event and some authoritarian world-spanning empire (that is Russia), or we go on forever, become a multi-planet species and that’s what we want (ignore Winston Churchill's argument about democracy).

Arbitrary: 12/14/2016 11:00 CST

Bryan See, you should stop reading Clinton's internal propaganda machine now (you know, NYT, WaPo, CNN, ABC et c), they lost the election. The most important thing with the election is that Clinton, who greedily has enriched herself by taking bribes from the worst tyrants in the world, who torture all LGBT to death and enslave all women. She would've imported many millions of hateful intolerant islamists to the US, in the long term turning the US into a Middle Eastern nation with eternal wars and the worst imaginable oppression, like all other Middle Eastern countries. Islam is a violent stone age "culture" which hasn't evolved in over a thousand years. Talking which Russia, which actually has saved Europe from despots like Napoleon and Hitler, is much better than taking orders from the tyrants of the Middle East. I wish that the left had criticized Russia as much when it was the Soviet Union, a poor military dictatorship with tens of thousands of nukes, concentration camps and the worst environmental destruction in history.

MarcDuQuesne: 12/14/2016 06:45 CST

"All of these are a threat to our plans to leave Earth orbit (e.g. colonize Mars)." "Our plan" was, in the late 70's, to build artificial hollow spinning moons as space colonies because Mars is a dead end. Gerard K. O'Neill was the American prophet of space colonization until Elon Musk came along and disregarded his findings. The NewSpace movement is the worst thing that has ever happened to space explorations. The ice on the Moon is the critical enabling resource for any human expansion into the solar system.

Jason: 12/14/2016 07:45 CST

Seems like the outcome of this election could have caused unpredictable catastrophes. Let us all hope that Trump could handle all these and figure out the best solutions to the upcoming issues. Peace.

Elto: 12/14/2016 09:24 CST

I don't see the point of human spaceflight. If it was free, I'd say do whatever. But it's not free, and every dollar spent there is a dollar lost elsewhere. I am all for robotic probes, telescopes, observatories, orbiters, landers, rovers; but I am all against human spaceflight. -- The ISS has a price tag of more than $150 billion. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station#Cost) while New Horizons cost about $0.7 billion. Which has done more for science, for space exploration, for astronomy, for knowledge? How many other "New Horizons" could we have sent for the price of the ISS?

David E: 12/15/2016 03:32 CST

Elto, tend to agree, the 'justification' for the ISS is that it helps enable humans to live in space. But, currently, the only reason for humans to live in space is to man the ISS... Circular reasoning anyone? The rest of you: could we not use this page for generalised dicussion on the recent US presidential election? Thank you

Bryan See: 12/15/2016 09:23 CST

Arbitrary, listen. Trump has praised Putin, and the Russian President praised him. He likes to get along with thugs. Right now, we are living in a world where corruption and lawlessness is commonplace. Tech progress is halted in favor of jobs, jobs, jobs, which means the return of American manufacturing. And there's a concern. He would do badly, with Phobos-Grunt-type launch failures growing in the space sector. And finally, as Elon Musk warned: "I don't think we can discount the possibility of a third World War... and if that does occur it could be far worse than anything that's happened before. Let's say nuclear weapons are used. I mean, there could be a very powerful social movement that's anti-technology." We have a growing social movement that's critical to technology. Even worse, our planet and our humanity will be renamed "Trumputin", an authoritarian traditionalist society.

Stephen: 12/20/2016 08:15 CST

@Elto: “How many other "New Horizons" could we have sent for the price of the ISS?” Probably a lot. The problem is you are optimistically assuming Congress would devote the ISS’s $150 billion to New Horizons missions. Or robotic probes in general, for that matter. The reality is that it almost certainly would not. Instead Congress would spend most of that $150 billion on the Defence Dept, Social Security, bail outs for Wall Street, or tax cuts for the 1%. Unmanned spaceflight would continue to get a pittance. NASA is having problems finding the billions for a Mars sample return. The notion that if there was no ISS (or manned spaceflight missions in general) there would be more for unmanned mission is an unrealistic fantasy. @Elto: “The ISS has a price tag of more than $150 billion…while New Horizons cost about $0.7 billion” That comparison is both misleading and absurd. Sure, in straight money terms, New Horizon is cheap compared to ISS, but it also accomplished a minuscule fraction of what a human expedition sent out on a Pluto flyby would have accomplished even though such an expedition would have cost a couple of orders of magnitude more than New Horizons. Which brings me to… @Elto: “I don't see the point of human spaceflight.” You could just as easily ask: What is the point of UNmanned spaceflight if there was no prospect of people one day going out to those places you are sending those robotic probes to?

Geoff: 12/25/2016 10:35 CST

My views on the next four years of spaceflight: Priorities: 1) Moon first, 3 days away, proving ground for further destinations, caves (huge caves), we can go tomorrow. 2) Off Earth resources, Unlimited!, some in nearly pure form, environmentally dangerous processes performed off Earth. Living off the land. 3) Protect the Earth, from Asteroids, and Comets, natural disasters, human made disasters (biological, chemical, nuclear, etc.) 4) Backup of human knowledge (library of congress), backup of species (Ark). 5) find out if biology can reproduce in lower than Earth Gravity! No Babies, no Colony! This is the mos important question of Human Space activities! It will say if we can live on other worlds, or if we visit from spinning stations in orbit around those destinations.

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