In a “night of the long knives” purge, NASA’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine has ruthlessly demoted its head of its Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate Bill Gerstenmaier and his deputy Bill Hill. Gerstenmaier becomes a special adviser to Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard, but in effect he has been removed from power and has this new role as a compensatory temporary assignment.  He has been replaced by former astronaut Ken Bowersox who will be acting head with the title Acting Associate Administrator.   Hill has now similarly been detailed to a new position as special adviser to Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

Lockheed Martin Concept for a reusable lunar lander operating between Lunar Gateway and the Moon’s surface. Courtesy: Lockheed Martin

It is suspected that Gerstenmaier, who has served in his role since 2011 and had decades of experience before that, has been removed because of his support for the construction of a lunar orbiting space station called the Lunar Gateway.  While cited as a way of learning exploration activities needed for a Mars mission while providing a good waypoint for multiple lunar landings making lunar exploration more sustainable, critics point out that the construction of the Lunar Gateway would mean that it would take longer to put astronauts back on the Moon. They also note that it may not be needed anyway if SpaceX and Blue Origin succeed with their own commercial lunar activities.  As it is, there are also concerns that concentrating on building lunar infrastructure could bog down the effort to make human landings on Mars by siphoning off funds from the plan.

A new impetus from the Trump Administration at the White House is to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and then concentrate on getting to Mars. This has resulted in an alternative faster, more direct, landing plan gaining support.  This would eschew the use of a Lunar Gateway station to use a direct two-launch strategy instead. This direct architecture could use the SLS Block 1 to launch the crewed Orion spacecraft to the Moon, win conjunction with an ICPS fitted Falcon Heavy being used to launch a lunar lander ahead of them.  The crew would then transfer to this pre-positioned craft to land, before ascending and redocking with Orion for their return to Earth.

Comment by David Todd: The moustachioed Bill Gerstenmaier was very much regarded as part of the “keep NASA in control” old guard at the Administration. That is, while they note the waste and bureaucracy in past giant NASA-led international space projects such as the ISS or SLS/Orion, they still do not want to accept that commercial firms could probably do these better – and much cheaper – than NASA can.

However, without Gerstenmaier and his allies being there to force sustainability into the exploration equation, there remains a fear that NASA’s exploration programme might return to the short-termist “footprints and flags followed by nothing else” Apollo project era. This could happen again if the short-term fast exploration strategy is taken to an extreme without thought to how a long term infrastructure might be built on the Moon.

Nevertheless, in the author’s opinion, it is the right course for NASA to use the SLS/Orion combination as it is  – in conjunction with commercial launches – to make initial direct lunar exploration flights as fast as possible without recourse to a “Gateway” space station. After these flights NASA should relinquish most of its lunar mission and let commercial space (SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing and Lockheed Martin) take over lunar operations – albeit with some NASA funding, as NASA concentrates on putting humans on Mars. This Mars mission might be achieved via direct funding of the SpaceX plan, or via a multi-company approach using SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

There is just one problem. Ahead of any Mars mission or longer term lunar infrastructure projects, the International Space Station (ISS) needs to be replaced.  And it has to be done soon – or the current commercial space transportation effort will have nowhere to go in low Earth orbit. As such, a mini-space station concept should be still be developed with NASA money – probably via a public-private partnership – but it should more like a “son-of-Skylab” space station located in low Earth orbit for national, international and commercial use, rather than a Lunar Gateway one for the Moon.

By the way, to keep construction costs low most of it should be build on the ground with only a minimal need for expensive in-orbit construction.  These new space stations would have the potential to be later modified to be Lunar Gateway space stations around the Moon as part of a sustainable lunar infrastructure.

One suspects here that just as Skylab was based on the reconfigured upper stage of Saturn V which it also launched it, so SLS might have a similar potential.  By the way, NASA would have been wiser to have built a series of Skylabs rather than the ISS. NASA could have probably afforded a hundred such Skylab-class space stations for the cost of the ISS.

In Conclusion:

  1. NASA should mount its fast lunar exploration effort to the Moon, probably using the SLS and an ICPS equipped Falcon Heavy, developing a lunar lander as it does so and should consider stretching the ICPS upper stage of the SLS as well to improve its TLI (Trans Lunar Injection) payload as well.
  2. NASA should start building a “son of Skylab” space station design as a series to eventually replace the ISS, and which might later provide a Gateway space station in lunar orbit as well.
  3. It should then provide financial incentives for the commercial firms to put lunar infrastructure in place while investing in the SpaceX plan to reach Mars.

Post Script: Several other space agencies are bidding to build kit on the current officially titled Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway plan including a bid from the UK Space Agency via the European Space Agency to provide its communications. However, as we have noted, the Lunar Gateway is not certain to happen, or if it does, it could be very different to the current plan.

The original Skylab space station of the early 1970s was surprisingly successful and it is what NASA and the commercial low Earth orbit space effort needs now to replace ISS. Courtesy: NASA