Sustainability lessons from Artemis: How SLS and Orion succeeded
by Frank Slazer
|If any NASA program is a study in sustainability, it’s Artemis, and in our politically divided time, its lessons of stability are needed now more than ever.|
A key reason for the success of Artemis in navigating this changing environment was its origins in the Space Shuttle program. For 30 years, the shuttle had been America’s “space truck,” transporting hundreds of people into space, deploying groundbreaking spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope, and transporting and assembling much of the International Space Station (ISS). For a variety of reasons, including reducing new development and preserving the nation’s skilled shuttle labor force and industrial base, many elements of the shuttle program were combined to create the nation’s next super-heavy space launch vehicle, the SLS.
During the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs, a nationwide space industrial base was created, centered on locations where major program work was done: Huntsville, New Orleans, Southern California, Houston, Florida’s Space Coast, southern Mississippi, and Brigham City, Utah, among other locations. In these areas, significant work was done on the shuttle program, supported by an even more diverse subcontractor base. These communities became the heart of the shuttle program and developed a great deal of pride in their role in space. Their local economies benefitted and the senators and representatives from these areas became the core of the program’s support in Washington.
While some have criticized the Space Shuttle and SLS programs as wasteful “jobs programs,” in fact, the shuttle was a terrific stimulant for regional economic development, encouraging young people in these areas to pursue STEM education, creating more high-tech jobs in these communities, and increasing opportunities for small and disadvantaged businesses, including veteran-owned firms.
After the loss of the Columbia orbiter in 2003, President George W. Bush established a commission to examine whether human spaceflight and exploration was worth the cost and the risk. The conclusion was that it was, but that human space activity was best justified for exploration. The Bush Administration endorsed this recommendation, and, after an extensive architecture process, the Constellation program was created with a plan to return to the Moon and go on to Mars with a super heavy launch vehicle based on shuttle elements—Ares V—a new Orion deep space crew exploration vehicle, and a new lunar lander, Altair.
Originally, Constellation was planned to be funded by adding a small amount of additional funds to NASA’s budget, but mostly by quickly returning shuttle to flight, and finishing ISS assembly in 2010 before ending the program in 2015, thus freeing up billions of NASA’s top line for exploration investments.
In the end, NASA was never provided much in new money for Constellation, the shuttle took longer to return to flight and cost more than expected and – once the ISS was finished in 2011 – neither Congress, the new Obama Administration, nor the international partners were eager to terminate tens of billions of dollars in ISS investments quickly. Not surprisingly, Constellation fell behind schedule and costs began to rise.
|Moving forward, what are the lessons learned that can help ensure Artemis and subsequent Moon-to-Mars roadmap programs will endure? In the end, it comes down to contracting in a way that makes connections in local communities.|
Two other developments also impacted Constellation: the Great Recession of 2008 and a new president. Obama had never made space programs a priority during his campaign and his Administration sought to invest in “shovel-ready” projects to stimulate the economy, rather than ones that would take a decade or longer. Instead, they established a review panel headed by former Martin Marietta CEO Norm Augustine, which concluded that barring significant new investment, the Constellation program would take so long that it would not inspire the American people and its price tag would likely grow even more. The Obama Administration, unwilling to invest more due to other priorities, chose to cancel Constellation.
As always, presidents propose, and Congress disposes. Congressional concerns over cancellation included the local job impacts in the space communities that had supported the Space Shuttle at a time when national unemployment rate was in double digits. While the Obama Administration tried to offset the impact by reinvesting funds to turn Kennedy Space Center into a multi-user spaceport and beginning the Commercial Crew program, Congressional space exploration advocates—including then-Florida Senator Bill Nelson and Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson—feared cancellation would indefinitely delay America’s return to deep space exploration. In the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, the Ares V super heavy lift vehicle was reborn as the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle was also continued, with corresponding support for both ground infrastructure and propulsion programs.
Subsequent years under Obama saw additional efforts to cancel or underfund the exploration programs of record, but Congressional support, anchored by the heritage shuttle communities, remained bipartisan and consistent. It is this support, tied to local communities and businesses that supported the shuttle program, that has enabled these programs to make steady progress, even without funding at a level that would bring them online faster and more cost effectively. In fact, were it not for these diverse communities of support, it’s possible that these programs would have died long ago—as would our chances of reaching the Moon in this decade.
Moving forward, what are the lessons learned that can help ensure Artemis and subsequent Moon-to-Mars roadmap programs will endure? In the end, it comes down to contracting in a way that makes connections in local communities. It does not require a return to heritage cost-plus contracting for all new elements, although high-risk technology investments with no near-term commercial markets may still need this contract type. Nor does NASA need to own all assets. And for pure commercial service buys, such as logistics launch services support for the lunar Gateway that use the same launch capabilities as other customers, price and performance alone should be the criterion.
However, where NASA’s exploration needs are the predominant customer for an exploration capability, NASA should seek to achieve more than just getting the lowest cost capability. While counterintuitive, spending a bit more to require contractors to make awards like the 10% set aside to small and historically disadvantaged or veteran-owned businesses with detailed jobs documentation, and to spend small amounts on public outreach, engagement, and education, will do a lot to provide enduring benefits to stakeholders around the nation. Additionally, this will make these programs more politically sustainable over the long run. This is what was done on the Space Shuttle and the ISS, and it helped make those programs politically sustainable for decades. To assure Artemis endures, this should explicitly be done for future exploration procurements.
|If Congress does pass an authorization, it should include provisions requiring NASA to take a more direct role in its service procurements and ensure that the benefits of our nation’s Artemis investments reach the industrial base, students, and associated communities around the nation.|
It should be expected, especially when dealing with newer space entrants, that some of these contractors may push back on such requirements, dismissing them as unnecessary or infringing on the efficiencies needed for commercial success. But the reality is that unlike in the market for space launch services, NASA’s Artemis program and its international partners will be the dominant demand driver for exploration services for the foreseeable future. This reality will only be exacerbated by recent macroeconomic trends leading to a pullback in high-risk capital investment impacting aspiring new commercial entrants. A commercial firm with a firm contract to provide NASA exploration support will be far more likely to attract investment and talent. NASA needs to recognize that it is in the driver’s seat for its exploration commercial services, and it should use this market power to improve the impact of these investments.
Of course, in addition to NASA, Congress has an opportunity to weigh in. While not assured, there are indications that the House and Senate authorization committees with jurisdiction over NASA may try to produce a more detailed NASA authorization bill than was included in the CHIPS Plus Science Act last year, hopefully one that will include many of the exploration elements in the recent NASA budget request. If Congress does pass an authorization, it should include provisions requiring NASA to take a more direct role in its service procurements and ensure that the benefits of our nation’s Artemis investments reach the industrial base, students, and associated communities around the nation. In doing so, Congress will both ensure that the Artemis exploration program broadly benefits our society while also ensuring that our nation’s space industrial base is strengthened.
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