NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced today that he is naming Mark Sirangelo as a special assistant to take charge of developing a strategy and plan for NASA to return humans to the Moon in 2024 as directed by the White House.  Also today, the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group (UAG) took steps towards setting up a Red Team analysis of NASA’s plans as they come together.

Mark Sirangelo. Credit: CU Boulder website.

Sirangelo is very well known in the space community primarily from his years as Vice President of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems Division where he led the Dream Chaser program.  He left last year and joined the University of Colorado Boulder as an “entrepreneur in residence.”

Bridenstine said in a memo to employees today that Sirangelo will have “broad responsibilities to work across the Mission Directorates” to develop NASA’s exploration plans.  He will also lead an agency restructuring to create a “Moon to Mars Mission Directorate” that will focus the agency’s efforts to meet the Moon-by-2024 goal.

Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the White House National Space Council, directed NASA to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024 at a March 26 meeting of the Space Council.  That would be the last year of a Trump second term if he is reelected.  It is four years earlier than NASA had been planning.

NASA has been working on a notional architecture to return humans to the lunar surface by 2028 for quite some time.  Astronauts would get to the Moon in an Orion capsule launched by NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and dock at a small space station, the Gateway, in lunar orbit.  There they would board a transfer vehicle to get to a lower orbit around the Moon.  A descent vehicle would take them down to the surface and they would leave the surface in the ascent vehicle.  After returning to the Gateway, they would depart back to Earth in Orion.

SLS and Orion have been in development for many years.  The Gateway is funded for the first time in FY2019.  The other elements remain conceptual.  Lunar spacesuits also will be needed.

Bridenstine indicated at an agency Town Hall meeting last week that the notional architecture remains the reference plan, but he will seek more funding to accelerate it.  Bridenstine told the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee last week that he did not yet know the cost estimate for accelerating the program and the agency will submit an amended budget request soon with that information.

According to Bridenstine’s memo, the new Directorate will manage the Gateway, human lunar lander, and surface systems programs as well as exploration research and technology. Currently NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) manages those programs along with operation of the International Space Station, NASA’s space and terrestrial communications networks, and several other activities.  The idea apparently is to split that in two, one for operations and the other for development.  That is how it was organized in the past, but the former Space Operations Mission Directorate and Exploration Systems Mission Directorate were merged into HEOMD in 2011.

With only 5 years to accomplish the Administration’s goal, there is no time to lose.  Nonetheless, at a meeting of the Space Council’s UAG this afternoon, chairman Adm. Jim Ellis (Ret.) adopted a proposal by Gen. Les Lyles (Ret.) to establish a UAG task force to act as a “Red Team” to assess the plans NASA develops versus alternatives.  Lyles chairs the UAG’s Exploration and Discovery committee.  He also chairs the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which reports to Bridenstine.

Ellis agreed to the Lyles recommendation with the caveat that there is a difference between “assess” and “assist” and the UAG’s role is to assist.  He also thinks the task force should be small so it can work at a fast pace, and conflicts of interest must be avoided when choosing the members.  He said he would work with Lyles to develop Terms of Reference and bring it back to the UAG for approval at its next meeting.

With the 5-year clock ticking, how much time will be available for independent outside reviews by the UAG or others remains to be seen.

Bridenstine will speak at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO tomorrow (Tuesday) morning.  Perhaps more information will be shared at that time.

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