Members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee expressed strong support for NASA’s Artemis program today. Citing the need for U.S. leadership in space, especially to get U.S. astronauts back on the Moon before China does, Republican and Democratic members left no doubt about their enthusiasm for Artemis. Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, one of the witnesses, was the only voice for abandoning Artemis on the basis that a complete do-over is required if the United States does, indeed, want to stay ahead of China.

The committee announced the hearing before the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee last week after NASA delayed the next two Artemis launches by a year each. Wintry weather in the Washington D.C. area disrupted airline travel, however, and a number of members including subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) could not get back in time. Full committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) chaired the hearing in his absence.

Lucas opened the hearing by declaring his strong support for Artemis and was quickly joined in that sentiment by full committee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and subcommitte Ranking Member Eric Sorensen (D-IL). Firm bipartisan support pervaded the hearing with a strong focus from both parties on the need to ensure Americans return to the Moon before Chinese astronauts land.

Griffin, one of four witnesses, strongly agrees, but is convinced Artemis will fail in that regard.  Griffin’s efforts to return humans to the Moon and go on to Mars date back to President George H. W. Bush’s Administration (1989-1993) when he headed NASA’s Space Exploration Initiative office. He was NASA Administrator during President George W. Bush’s second term (2005-2009) and developed the plan for the Constellation program to get back to the Moon by 2020. President Barack Obama (2009-2017) nixed the Constellation program because it was unaffordable and decided NASA should focus on getting astronauts to orbit Mars in the 2030s and forget about the Moon.  President Donald Trump (2017-2021) kept Mars, but restored the Moon to plan, which NASA has been working on ever since.

Griffin, now co-President of LogiQ Inc., has been a vocal critic of NASA’s new plan from the beginning. He judges it to be too complicated and expensive, especially the decision to include a small Gateway space station in lunar orbit. In 2018 he called it “stupid.

Mike Griffin testifying to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee, January 17, 2024. Screengrab

In his opening statement today, he said he’d be brief and direct, and he was.

“The Artemis program is excessively complex, unrealistically priced, compromises crew safety and is highly unlikely to be completed in a timely manner even if successful. This matters because our self-declared adversary, the Chinese Communist Party, together with their Russian partner fully understand the role that being on the space frontier has in the world of global power politics.

“We seem no longer to understand that for the United States and its partners not to be on the Moon when others are on the Moon — it’s unacceptable. We need a program that is consistent with that theme.

“Artemis is not that program. We need to restart it, not keep it on track.” — Mike Griffin, former NASA Administrator

None of the committee members or the other witnesses embraced the idea of starting over, but there were questions about whether the latest timelines are realistic. Last week NASA delayed the launch of the crew test flight around the Moon, Artemis II, from 2024 to 2025, and the first landing on the Moon since Apollo from 2025 to 2026.

Cathy Koerner, NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) that oversees Artemis, insisted they are. The new schedule includes enough leeway — “margin” — to address the remaining issues from the Artemis I uncrewed test flight in 2022 and technical challenges identified since to support the new Artemis II launch date of September 2025, she asserted.

Griffin and the other two witnesses, Bill Russell from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and George Scott, NASA’s Acting Inspector General, concurred that 2025 is reasonable fot Artemis II, but none thought Artemis III would be ready in 2026.

GAO’s Bill Russell testfies to the House Science, Space, and Technology space subcommittee, January 17, 2024. Screengrab.

Russell pointed to a study he led last year that assessed the timelines for developing Artemis systems compared to NASA’s historical record and concluded early 2027 was the most likely date for Artemis III. He also noted the new schedule allows one year between Artemis II and Artemis III, which may not be enough time to apply lessons learned as NASA is discovering with the almost three-year interval between Artemis I, which ended in December 2022, and Artemis II now planned for September 2025.

Koerner pushed back, insisting they already are working on the Artemis III hardware and “I fully expect before we ever launch Artemis II, Artemis III vehicle processing will be far enough along that we will be able to take advantage of the one-year between the two missions to be ready for Artemis III in September 2026.”  She added that during last week’s press conference “we had our 11 industry partners online with us” and “all of them have signed up” for the new schedule.

Lofgren asked Koerner what would happen if all five components needed to execute Artemis III — the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft, Exploration Ground Systems, Human Landing System, and lunar spacesuits — aren’t ready at the same time. Koerner replied the new Moon to Mars Program Office within ESDMD was created to make sure “they all converge,” but if they don’t, they could adjust the mission.

NASA’s Cathy Koerner testifies to the House Science, Space, and Technology space subcommittee, January 17, 2024. Screengrab.

“We would potentially execute a slightly modified version of that mission. … We have set in place for our agency a process that allows us to keep an eye on the exploration objectives. All of our missions contribute to those exploration objectives so we can modify the mission content to adjust, to still accomplish those objectives. … We’re building a capability, not just launch capability, but capability in cislunar orbit, capability on the surface of the Moon over time.” — Cathy Koerner, NASA AA for Exploration Systems Development

Koerner’s predecessor, Jim Free, recently promoted to be NASA’s Associate Administrator, hinted at the same thing last summer.

NASA Acting Inspector General George Scott testifying to the House Science, Space and Technology space subcommittee, January 17, 2024. Screengrab

Russell and Scott spoke repeatedly about the need for NASA to be more transparent about Artemis costs not only for Artemis II and III, but beyond. NASA touts the Artemis program as entirely different from Apollo not only because it includes international and commercial partners, but because the goal is long-term, sustainable lunar exploration and utilization.

“The Artemis campaign lacks cost and schedule transparency. NASA has not developed a comprehensive estimate for all Artemis costs. And unlike its other major projects and programs, NASA has not established life-cycle costs or made cost and schedule commitments for some programs supporting Artemis.

“Without the agency fully accounting for and accurately reporting the overall cost of current and future missions, it will be difficult for Congress to make informed decisions about NASA’s long-term funding needs. Further, without credible, complete, and transparent cost and schedule estimates, NASA will be hard pressed to achieve cost savings, a key step to making Artemis sustainable over time.”  George Scott, NASA Acting Inspector General

Most members endorsed NASA’s emphasis on safety. Lucas said Congress has a responsibility to see that Artemis “is executed in a timely and fiscally responsible manner without sacrificing safety.” Sorensen agreed Artemis needs to be “safe and successful” and Lofren said she has “full confidence in NASA’s workforce and the decision to keep safety as the top priority.” Sorensen noted that next week is the anniversary of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy.

NASA’s Day of Remembrance honoring astronauts who died in the pursuit of space exploration is January 25.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), however, argued that focusing on safety may unnecessarily slow progress.

Koerner had said Artemis is “infinitely safer than what we did in Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.” Issa asked her for statistics to prove it. She replied she didn’t have statistics, but today’s systems have more redundancy, reliability, and capability.

Issa insisted that “nobody died going to the Moon and back” during the Apollo program and “the program that killed the most of our astronauts was the cost-saving, redundant use, new and improved shuttle.” He acknowledged that “early exploration had its deaths including three on the ground,” referring to the Apollo 1 crew who died on January 27, 1967 when a fire erupted in their Apollo capsule during a ground test, “so there have been lessons.” He asked Russell if  “Artemis is looking for new solutions to things that already have been solved,” delaying schedule and raising costs.

Russell didn’t respond in terms of safety, but said NASA is at an “inflection point” in the next 12-18 months as it sets baseline commitments to schedule and cost for the Artemis projects. “Capturing the technical risk and putting it in a realistic baseline, I think, will be central.”

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