Nasa manager casts doubt on 2024 Moon landing deadline
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A top Nasa manager has raised doubts about the US space agency’s ability to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024.
Kenneth Bowersox, the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations, told a Congressional subcommittee that Nasa is doing its best to meet the White House-imposed deadline. However, he said: “I wouldn’t bet my oldest child’s upcoming birthday present or anything like that.”
Bowersox – who is a former space shuttle and space station commander – noted that it’s a good idea for Nasa to have “that aggressive goal”, adding that many things need to come together, such as funding and technical challenges, for the agency to stand a chance of achieving the 2024 goal.
“What’s important is that we launch when we’re ready, that we have a successful mission when it launches, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that just arbitrarily we’re going to make it,” he said in response to questioning by Bill Posey, a Republican representative from Florida. “There’s a lot of risk in making the date, but we want to try to do it.”
In March this year, the Trump administration urged Nasa to accelerate its Moon-landing plans, bringing the date forward by four years to 2024. This request came a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the first lunar footsteps by Apollo 11′s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Nasa has named the programme Artemis, after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, and promises the first moonwalking team will include a woman. The pair would land on the lunar south pole, where vast reserves of frozen water could be tapped for future explorers.
Jim Bridenstine, Nasa’s administrator – who is pushing the programme – stresses the goal is sustainability this time around, with the Moon serving as a critical training ground for Mars expeditions, perhaps in the 2030s.
Nasa’s replacement for the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), is currently still in development. However, it was reported that the vehicle is “unlikely” to meet its June 2020 construction date due to over-budgeting, which may delay the Moon trip plans beyond the scheduled 2024 departure date.
Also, according to Bowersox, its launch debut will now occur no earlier than the end of next year. This initial test flight will send an Orion capsule around the Moon with no one on board.
However, Nasa's Orion spacecraft is currently undergoing rigorous tests. In July, the space agency demonstrated the viability of an astronaut safety device installed in Orion that will allow it to outrun a speeding rocket and pull astronauts to safety in an emergency.
During the space subcommittee hearing, Michael Waltz, another Republican representative from Florida, asked why it’s taking so long and costing so much for Nasa “to get back to where we were” during Apollo and the days when its Saturn V rocket landed on the Moon back in 1972.
In response, Doug Cooke, a former Nasa exploration manager now running his own consulting business, said engineers often want to include new technologies and ideas and therefore the programme gets “trapped in that to some degree.”
Cooke, however, said he favours a “simpler Apollo-like approach” for getting astronauts back to the Moon, requiring fewer launches and critical manoeuvres than envisioned under the Artemis programme.
Furthermore, Nasa’s proposed mini outpost around the Moon known as Gateway, from which astronauts would descend to the lunar surface, should be delayed until later missions, according to Cooke.
He also pointed out the obvious anxiety in Mission Control during the Apollo Moon landings. “It’s hard enough as it is,” he stated.
When asked whether private companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX might beat Nasa to the Moon, he replied: “I’d still bet on us — but they might be part of our programme.”
To prepare for another human mission to the Moon, however, American robotics company Astrobotic Technology announced that its unmanned robotic lander will be the first American spacecraft expected to land on the Moon and will be launched by United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket in 2021.
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