Crew Dragon returns to dry land as NASA promises new space station for the Moon

Upgrades postponed for NASA's big rocket budget request in this week's round-up

NASA's SLS on the mobile launcher

Having plucked a damp Dragon from the ocean, the rest of the week's space news was dominated by a tightening budget will see commercial space seeking a large slice of NASA's Moon pie.

A bit less SLS

NASA's FY2020 budget proposal arrived on 11 March, and amid the excitement over the potential for a fresh bootprint in the lunar dust, there was some bad news for the SLS on which they are expected to travel.

While EM1 (the uncrewed first mission) and EM2 (a crewed mission to "slingshot" around the moon in 2023) are both funded, both will be launching using the Block 1 incarnation of the SLS launcher.

However, a power boost due with the Block 1B iteration of the booster is now to be "deferred" with funds "focused on supporting a reliable SLS and Orion annual flight cadence."

NASA had, of course, planned to use the upgraded rocket to ferry components for its Lunar Gateway mini-space-station into orbit around the Moon. With the additional power now pushed to some unspecified point in the future, there is scope for commercial outfits, such as SpaceX, to take on more of that transportation duty.

Even if the US Space Agency was less than keen on the idea back in 2018.

As for the Lunar Gateway itself, the budget envisages getting the first module of the station into orbit around the Moon by 2022, with a power and propulsion unit going up first, and habitation and logistics elements following soon after. Crew could stay aboard the outpost from 2024, according to the proposal.

The US space agency also plans to land a human on the Moon by 2028.

The budget request, which still has to be approved, stands at $21bn, $500m less than that enacted for FY2019. It is, of course, a proposal at this stage, and there is plenty of scope for lawmakers to make changes and restore funding for the likes of STEM and some of the science under threat of cancellation.

NASA science takes a hit

While SLS fans rubbed posteriors sore from the budgetary kicking, scientists also suffered in a NASA budget that was clearly pointed to getting some fresh footprints on the moon. The overall science budget request dropped by $600m to $6.3bn and could fall further to $5.8bn by 2024.

The voracious money-sponge that is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was spared, seeing an increase on the previous year.

The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) was not so lucky, and the administration is having another go at cancelling it.

Although the stance in NASA's briefing is that there'll be no funding for the WFIRST until the JWST is actually off the ground, the request itself states bluntly that "Given delays and cost growth with the James Webb Space Telescope, the Administration is not ready to proceed with another multi-billion-dollar space telescope". Ouch.

On the bright side, funding has been promised for the 2020 Mars Rover and the Europa Clipper, a probe due for launch in 2023. Originally destined for the SLS, the probe will now be launched aboard an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) according to the request.

With NASA kicking its SLS to the kerb, that means either a Delta IV Heavy or a Falcon Heavy will be sending the spacecraft on its way to Jupiter.

NASA has also snuck in a potential date for an uncrewed mission to Mars to retrieve the samples collected by the Mars 2020 rover. 2026 has been mooted for the launch, should the project survive the budget environment of the next few years.

ex-Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver, weighs in

NASA's former Deputy Administrator, Lori Garver, popped up during the previous week as rumours swirled of potential delays to the SLS. She could be forgiven for uttering the odd "I told you so".

Back in the day, when Garver was departing the agency following a busy four years that included the last flight of the Space Shuttle, she warned that the first flight of NASA’s giant booster could well be delayed past the then planned 2017 launch date, with a subsequent delay to the 2021 crewed flight.

Garver said "People are more optimistic than … reality" in an interview at the time with the Orlando Sentinel.

NASA, of course, disagreed, and the then SLS Program Manager for Boeing, reckoned things actually looked "five months ahead of schedule." Barnes herself would retire two years later, in 2015.

Garver, of course, was proven correct, and with the NASA's own budget now saying the rocket will be operational in "the early 2020s", that first launch could well slip into 2021. ®

In other news... Crew Dragon returns to shore and Israel's lunar lander fires its engine

On the eve of NASA's FY2020 budget launch, one of the beneficiaries of the US agency's largesse made it back to port aboard SpaceX's GO Searcher recovery vessel. The spacecraft is due to be refurbished and used again for an upcoming in-flight abort test.

Taking a breather from ladling praise on the successful Demo-1 mission, NASA's Commercial Crew Program Deputy Manager, Steve Stich, suggested that the abort test, dubbed Demo-2 could happen "in the June timeframe."

Stich went on to say that the NASA team had yet to see anything "that would preclude us from having the crewed mission later this year."

The considerably more modest Israeli probe, Beresheet, continued its mission after a recent computer hiccup. The lander fired its main engine for 152 seconds, raising the highest point of its orbit to 270,000 km. The landing remains planned for 11 April. ®

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