Saturday, January 25, 2020

House NASA authorization bill changes Moon Mars and Gateway priorities

Yesterday the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee introduced H.R.­­ 5666, the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2020” that would cause a significant shift in priorities if passed into law.

There are many proposals in this bill which are improvements over the current "plan" that NASA calls "Moon to Mars". I wanted to share some of the most interesting improvements I see. There are several changes to important deadlines.

"The Moon to Mars program shall have the interim goal of sending a crewed mission to the lunar surface by 2028 and a goal of sending a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033." It's much more reasonable to safely land aeronauts on the Moon by 2028 than the 2024 deadline that was announced by Mike Pence.

I think the best sentence in this bill is, "The Gateway to Mars shall not be required for the conduct of human lunar landing missions."  I'm disappointed that the Gateway is still part of the proposed plan, but this bill allows Astronauts to land on the Moon without the increased cost and risk of stopping at the Gateway along the way. 

The requirement to build a Gateway is a boondoggle. Let me briefly explain why. Let's use the SpaceX Starship as the example of a Moon and Mars direct mission. SpaceX plans for Starship to go directly to the Moon and Mars without stopping to dock with a space station along the way. 

Somehow the Aerospace industry convinced members of Congress to require that a space station called "Gateway" be assembled in orbit around the Moon and to force every mission to dock with the space station before descending to the lunar surface. Robert Zubrin has aptly nicknamed it a "tollbooth" because it adds significant cost and risk with little benefit. 

So, this bill still requires that a Gateway be built but it allows the astronauts to go direct to the Moon and reduces the chance that we will kill those astronauts by rushing to get "boots on the Moon" with an unnecessary stop at the Gateway. 

I think there is a fun loophole in the language that might allow the "Gateway" space station to be near Mars rather than in orbit around the Moon. As this bill is currently written, I would argue that it could allow the Gateway to be positioned at any number of Lagrangian points in the solar system. If the Gateway was positioned at the Sun-Mars L1 or L2 Lagrangian point then it wouldn't be as stupid as putting it in orbit around the Moon.

Let me explain the loophole. The bill says, "The Moon to Mars Program shall consist of" ... "A Gateway to Mars in cis-lunar space or at a Lagrangian point". The bill defines the term ‘‘cis-lunar space’’ as "the region of space from the Earth out to and including the region around the surface of the Moon." It does not provide any legal definition of "Lagrangian point", nor does it elaborate on any requirement about which Lagrangian point at which the Gateway must be positioned. Also, one could argue that if the Gateway had an orbit closely around the Lagrangian point that it would technically be "at" the Lagrangian point.

I think they probably intended to suggest that the Gateway could be placed at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrangian points but they that. I'm not sure if this loophole was intentional, but it could significantly increase the value of the Gateway by putting it at the Earth-Mars L1, L2, L4 or L5 points near Mars. 

It's also great to see that this bill is bipartisan. It's co-sponsored by Chairwoman Kendra Horn (D-OK) along with Ranking Member Brian Babin (R-TX), Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK).  Horn said, “Space should not be a partisan issue, and I am proud of the across-the-aisle teamwork which made this legislation possible. Americans should be the first to set foot on the red planet, and H.R. 5666 moves us closer to that goal by directing a steady and sustainable course of action."

This bill will also, "require at least one uncrewed and one crewed in-space test and demonstration prior to its use to carry astronauts to the surface of the Moon and a plan for testing of a Mars human lander in a suitable environment." That's going to reduce the risk that we kill astronauts.
It's also great to see that they recommend several other requirements be removed from the "Moon to Mars" program because they are not helpful to the goal of landing on Mars. Below are the important excerpts.

"Any establishment of a continuously crewed lunar outpost or research station shall not be considered an element of the Moon to Mars Program and shall be budgeted separately from the Moon to Mars program."

"Crewed activities on or around the surface of the Moon that do not contribute to the goal of landing humans on Mars in as sustainable manner as practical shall not be included in the Moon to Mars Program and shall be budgeted separately from the Moon to Mars Program."

"Lunar in-situ resource utilization shall not be considered as risk reduction for the initial crewed missions to orbit and land on Mars. Any lunar in-situ resource utilization activities and shall not be included in the Moon to Mars Program and shall be budgeted separately from the Moon to Mars Program."

Those are the significant changes I was able to find. Did you read the bill? What other interesting changes did I miss?

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