Jason DavisDec 14, 2016

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

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

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
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.Image: NASA

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
Ready for exploration This slice of varied, rocky terrain inside Gale Crater on Mars was imaged by NASA's Curiosity rover in 2015.Image: NASA / JPL / MSSS / Thomas Appéré

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

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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