Moon may be back in play

Trump, now in charge of NASA, has a new rocket and space­ship. But his bud­get of­fers lit­tle guid­ance on where he’s go­ing to go.

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY JOEL ACHENBACH joel.achenbach@wash­post.com

new or­leans — NASA is build­ing a jumbo rocket. It’s called the Space Launch Sys­tem, or sim­ply the SLS. The core stage of the SLS is slowly ma­te­ri­al­iz­ing in a sprawl­ing fa­cil­ity on the out­skirts of the city. Tech­ni­cians are weld­ing up a storm and have com­pleted the largest com­po­nent — a liq­uid hy­dro­gen fuel tank that’s 133 feet from nose to tail and looks like a shiny metal­lic zep­pelin.

“This is our big boy,” said NASA en­gi­neer Stephen C. Do­er­ing, dwarfed by the tank rest­ing on cra­dles in a high bay.

NASA has a com­pli­cated way of build­ing rock­ets that fun­nels money to mul­ti­ple states in the South­east. The SLS pro­gram is based in Alabama, at the Mar­shall Space Flight Cen­ter. Engine tests will be done in Mis­sis­sippi, at the Sten­nis Space Cen­ter. The fi­nal stack­ing of the rocket and the launch will be from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter.

Con­struc­tion of the core stage is han­dled here in Louisiana, at the Mi­choud As­sem­bly Fa­cil­ity, which cov­ers the equiv­a­lent of 31 foot­ball fields. The vast struc­ture sur­vived Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005, and then a di­rect hit from a tor­nado ear­lier this year.

But the new rocket will have to sur­vive the un­pre­dictable cross­winds of Washington.

Pres­i­dent Trump is in charge of the space pro­gram, and no one in Washington seems to know ex­actly what’s go­ing to hap­pen next. The Trump bud­get blue­print re­leased last week of­fered lim­ited guid­ance.

The blue­print vows that NASA will in­crease co­op­er­a­tion with in­dus­try through pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships — a ges­ture to­ward start-up space com­pa­nies and en­trepreneurs who want to ex­pand the free mar­ket to deep space. Trump’s num­ber crunch­ers spared NASA the deep cuts felt in other gov­ern­ment agen­cies. The SLS rocket and the new Orion space cap­sule, two big-ticket items, re­main safe for now.

Trump has ex­pressed in­ter­est in Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s vow in 1961 to put Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts on the moon by the end of the 1960s. Thus ev­ery­one ex­pects Trump to try to cre­ate a “Kennedy mo­ment.”

The 50th an­niver­sary of the Apollo 11 lu­nar land­ing is com­ing up in two years. For NASA, and the en­tire space in­dus­try, that’s a huge an­niver­sary — and sud­denly ev­ery­one seems to be talking about moon mis­sions.

Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush wanted U.S. boots on the moon by 2020. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama killed the Bush pro­gram, say­ing we’d been there and done that. But with Repub­li­cans in con­trol of Congress and the White House, the moon looms larger in the sky.

Last month, in his ad­dress to Congress, Trump made a sin­gle, enig­matic com­ment about space: “Amer­i­can foot­prints on dis­tant worlds are not too big a dream.” Did that mean the moon? Mars? Trump hasn’t nom­i­nated any­one yet to lead NASA, nor has he picked a science ad­viser. In the mean­time, civil ser­vants at NASA head­quar­ters are re­ex­am­in­ing the cur­rent hu­man space­flight sched­ule to see whether there’s a way to do some­thing dra­matic be­fore the end of Trump’s term.

The first SLS launch, pen­ciled in for late next year, will also be the first time it is paired with the new Orion crew cap­sule. In­stead of live as­tro­nauts, man­nequins will serve as the crew. But last month, NASA’s act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor, Robert Light­foot, asked his team to look at the fea­si­bil­ity of adding as­tro­nauts to the first test flight. And then there’s Elon Musk. Musk, the founder and chief en­gi­neer of SpaceX, an­nounced last month that he in­tends to send two wealthy tourists next year on a joy ride past the moon and back to Earth. Musk said that he could do the moon flyby with his own new rocket, still un­der de­vel­op­ment, called the Fal­con Heavy. An­other wrin­kle: Musk told re­porters that SpaceX would be will­ing to bump the rich tourists from that first flight and let NASA as­tro­nauts take their place.

There are rea­sons to view such a sce­nario as ex­tremely un­likely. Pow­er­ful peo­ple in the space world would be un­happy to see Musk and SpaceX steal any thun­der from the SLS and Orion. Huge aero­space cor­po­ra­tions, in­clud­ing Boe­ing and Lock­heed Martin, have con­tracts for this hard­ware.

The Alabama fac­tor comes into play. The SLS is based at NASA Mar­shall, in Huntsville, the his­toric cen­ter of Amer­i­can rock­etry. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has a num­ber of in­flu­en­tial Alabami­ans, start­ing with At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Sessions. Two of Sessions’s former Se­nate staffers, Stephen Miller and Rick Dearborn, work in the White House.

There are prac­ti­cal is­sues, too: Musk has a rep­u­ta­tion for over­promis­ing on time­lines. SpaceX has never launched any­one into space. The Fal­con Heavy has never flown. More­over, NASA of­fi­cials would be un­likely to em­brace a SpaceX moon flyby un­less it clearly fit into the agency’s long-term plans for deep-space ex­plo­ration.

“What does Elon want to do with this — is it just a one-off tourist flight?” NASA’s top of­fi­cial for hu­man space­flight, Wil­liam Ger­sten­maier, said in an in­ter­view with The Washington Post. “I don’t see it as ad­vanc­ing hu­man pres­ence in the so­lar sys­tem.”

At the an­nual Robert H. God­dard Me­mo­rial Sym­po­sium this month in Green­belt, Md., a stu­dent from Pur­due Univer­sity asked space ex­perts a pointed ques­tion: What’s harder in space­flight, the tech­ni­cal engi­neer­ing or the po­lit­i­cal engi­neer­ing?

Mary Lynne Dittmar, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Coali­tion for Deep Space Ex­plo­ration, which rep­re­sents aero­space com­pa­nies such as Boe­ing and Lock­heed Martin, found that one easy to an­swer:

“Po­lit­i­cal engi­neer­ing is al­ways more chal­leng­ing.”

Ques­tion of mo­ti­va­tion

Things were so much sim­pler in the 1960s. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a Cold War and rac­ing to the moon in gov­ern­ment-owned rock­ets. The United States won that race, planted a flag, left boot­prints.

NASA to­day is faced with ba­sic ques­tions of desti­na­tion, hard­ware and mo­ti­va­tion. China has a grow­ing space pro­gram but does not seem in a hurry to put as­tro­nauts on the moon, so there’s no in­di­ca­tion that a space race is heat­ing up.

Six years af­ter NASA re­tired the space shut­tle, the agency re­lies on Rus­sian space­craft to ferry Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts to and from or­bit. SpaceX and Boe­ing have con­tracts to take as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, but the first flights are prob­a­bly a cou­ple years away. In the mean­time, NASA is build­ing the SLS and Orion for “deep space ex­plo­ration.”

In the 2020s, that would mean as­tro­nauts or­bit­ing the moon but not go­ing to the lu­nar sur­face. The most am­bi­tious such mis­sion would last a full year and func­tion as a trial run for the much more daunt­ing trip to Mars. Ger­sten­maier, ques­tioned by an au­di­ence mem­ber at the God­dard sym­po­sium, said he would not rule out a land­ing on the moon but did not think it was nec­es­sary for NASA’s long-term Mars am­bi­tions.

Ger­sten­maier is a civil ser­vant who has sur­vived many strate­gic piv­ots at NASA. In his brief re­marks at the ros­trum in Green­belt, he showed a graphic with gov­ern­ment-owned rock­ets like the SLS lined up next to pri­vate rock­ets like SpaceX’s Fal­con Heavy and Blue Ori­gin’s New Glenn. “I love ev­ery one of th­ese rock­ets,” he said.

But NASA’s steady-as-she-goes, me­thod­i­cal way of op­er­at­ing has been crit­i­cized by out­siders as overly slow and cau­tious. Former House speaker Newt Gin­grich, for one, has seen enough. Gin­grich is a space buff who has con­sulted with Trump in an un­of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity.

“The an­swer is to open the sys­tem up to com­pe­ti­tion, es­tab­lish prizes, take risks, and dream big,” Gin­grich said in an email to The Post.

The SLS is an old-fash­ioned rocket in many ways. NASA fully owns the rocket. It over­sees ev­ery as­pect of the rocket’s de­sign and op­er­a­tion. It’s be­ing built un­der tra­di­tional con­tracts that of­fer lit­tle in­cen­tive to hold down the cost. The booster is also dis­pos­able.

All that exquisitely welded metal in the gi­ant tank at Mi­choud will wind up at the bot­tom of the ocean. That’s an ex­pen­sive way to do busi­ness. The cost of a sin­gle launch of the SLS could be in the vicin­ity of $1 bil­lion.

SpaceX and Blue Ori­gin — the space start-up owned by Jef­frey P. Be­zos (who also owns The Post) — have em­pha­sized reusabil­ity. The two com­pa­nies have built boost­ers that can land softly back on land or on a plat­form at sea.

Musk has said he wants to launch the first hu­mans to the sur­face of Mars in 2024. He en­vi­sions gi­gan­tic space­ships that could carry 100 peo­ple at a time. The goal is to cre­ate cities on Mars so that the Mar­tian civ­i­liza­tion can be in­de­pen­dent and self­sus­tain­ing, and hu­man­ity will be a multi-planet species.

Be­zos is less fo­cused on Mars, but he has re­peat­edly said he wants to see mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing and work­ing in space. Blue Ori­gin has cir­cu­lated a white pa­per de­scrib­ing how it would like to pro­vide cargo de­liv­ery ser­vice as soon as 2020 for a (still hy­po­thet­i­cal) NASA lu­nar base.

“We should make Amer­i­can Space Great Again,” Gin­grich said in the email to The Post. “Done prop­erly we can be on the moon in Pres­i­dent Trump’s first term and or­bit­ing Mars by the end of his sec­ond term.”

Ger­sten­maier is preach­ing co­op­er­a­tion: “None of us can do it alone,” he said at the Green­belt sym­po­sium.

Ger­sten­maier talked about “an ur­gency” to NASA’s ac­tiv­i­ties. That’s be­cause, even with­out Trump chan­nel­ing Kennedy, NASA has a se­ri­ous plan to blast peo­ple back to the vicin­ity of the moon — “some­time in 2021, 2022,” Ger­sten­maier said. “That’s not that far away.”

If the plan holds, the big fuel tank at Mi­choud, plus an­other, smaller tank for liq­uid oxy­gen, and some other Mi­choud-cre­ated hard­ware, will wind up in Flor­ida, at the Cape, as part of a stack of com­po­nents form­ing a com­plete, full-fledged rocket that’s taller than the Statue of Lib­erty.

At that point it will sim­ply need a desti­na­tion.

SPACEX VIA EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The SpaceX Fal­con 9 lands at Kennedy Space Cen­ter in Flor­ida last month af­ter a re­sup­ply mis­sion to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

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