Bridenstine: NASA Lunar Plan Focused on Sustainable, Commercial Architecture

Orion near the moon (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA plans to send astronauts back to the surface of the moon within a decade using a sustainable architecture that stresses reusable vehicles and open systems, Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last week.

“So how do we go sustainably?” Bridenstine said during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC). “We start by taking advantage of capabilities in this country that didn’t exist even five or 10 years ago. We have commercial companies that can do things that weren’t possible even a few years ago….

“The idea that we have reusable rockets. Imagine if you flew across the united States, that you flew here to [NASA] Ames in a 737, and when the mission was over you threw the airplane away. How many of you would have flown here? It wouldn’t have happened,” he added.

The space agency chief made little mention during his address at the NASA Ames Research Center of two of the main components of the space agency’s exploration plan: the Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System that will send it to the moon. Neither one is reusable.

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Bridenstine instead focused on the planned Lunar Gateway, a space station in a halo orbit around the moon with its own propulsion system. The gateway will be served by reusable lunar tugs and landers.

“With that solar electric propulsion, it can also go to the L1 point and the L2 point, and give us more access to more parts of the moon than ever before,” Bridenstine said.

“We want to be able to do more than we’ve ever done before,” he added. “So what we’re going to do is build this critical infrastructure on and around the moon.”

The Lunar Gateway will use open standards that will allow commercial and international partners to build vehicles and systems compatible with it.

“And there’s another piece here that’s unique, it’s never been done before, it’s never been our policy as a country before, but the policy is this: we’re going to utilize the resources of the moon,” Bridenstine said.

There are hundreds of billions of tons of water ice on the moon that can be used for life support systems and rocket fuel, he added. There also could be trillions of dollars worth of platinum group metals deposited by asteroid impacts.

The ultimate goal of the lunar program is to test out technologies and retire risk so NASA can send astronauts to Mars, Bridenstine said.

The NASA administrator also discussed the Trump Administration’s Space Policy Directive 2, which assigns the Department of Commerce responsibility for regulating commercial activities in space such as lunar and asteroid mining. Regulations that facilitate such activities will be crucial to American leadership in space, he said.

“Friends, we have to make this a reality, because otherwise, these capabilities will go abroad….How do we get those commercial partners to be commercial partners, if instead they’re taking their money overseas? We want our commercial partners to stay here, we want to grow more commercial partners,” Bridenstine added.

  • Jeff2Space

    So, “little mention” of SLS/Orion. Good. He’s talking the talk, but can he walk the walk? And by that I mean, will he actually tell Congress that SLS/Orion is simply not needed? NASA could use that money in far more efficient ways by procuring launches and crew capsules commercially.

  • Michael Halpern

    Political tightrope there, he can’t tell them that until bfs test hops and/or new glenn and blue moon tests

  • Jeff2Space

    I personally think that Falcon Heavy is “good enough” for now (the new performance numbers put out by NASA shows Falcon Heavy expendable exceeds Delta IV Heavy’s payload for all but the highest speed launches where it’s essentially a tie). There is zero need for SLS even today, IMHO. Gateway can be done with a mix of various commercial launch vehicles. Anything more ambitious could be done with today’s launch vehicles and LEO refueling or docking/berthing.

    But yeah, lets keep spending $2+ billion each year on a launch vehicle everyone knows is obsolete technology (i.e. completely expendable in a world where reusables are coming into their own). The lost opportunity cost going forward will be staggering.

  • Michael Halpern

    Yes it can, however so long as it has a lower payload capacity than SLS, even if it is technically powerful enough, in the eyes of congress (namely Shelby) it isn’t powerful enough.

  • MorB

    We had proof about 50 years ago that the best way to go to the Moon is… to go to the Moon. Of course everything was to invent and it was almost unaffordable, dangerous too.
    So the main question should be : ” How can we make it affordable to land something on the Moon” ? Multiple ways are known and re-usability and re-filling cryogenic propellant in orbit are among those. But all we have is a major investment in a costly capsule and a rocket not so different from the Saturn-V and a “gateway” to nowhere.
    Where’s the lander ? The idea to mine lunar ice at the poles would be a tremendous task in itself. What’s the real benefit compared to extracting oxygen everywhere and bringing hydrogen from Earth ? With an expandable rocket like SLS, no hope, but what if we use a fully re-usable rocket ? And we can recycle pretty easily oxygen and water in a lunar base, much better than we would recycle rocket exhaust…
    The only critical infrastructure we need to have a lunar base is a lunar base. Nothing in orbit, no polar mining, but a means to extract oxygen everywhere and a cheap means of transport. Yes, the lunar night duration is a challenge, but we’re far from having missions of one month on the Moon with SLS, Orion and the “Gateway”, whatever its name may be.
    It’s the same old song “We don’t want to go to the Moon and do the others things, not because they are hard but because all our dollars have gone in a blackhole, sorry…”

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, it would be great if NASA asked SpaceX to send a Dragon2 with crew around the Moon. But the SLS/Orion folks would go bonkers and stop it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    But NASA only needs the larger payload because the Orion CSM are so heavy.

  • Michael Halpern

    I know, but so long as its the “only deep space crew vehicle”…. Believe me I want it and SLS gone, but I can’t ignore the political reality of it. I don’t envy Bridenstein.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I dont think that they would or could…what stopped it is that Elon got cold feet. I am told without reservation that the money was there…I cannot say who but there are people at Boeing who know the names of the people who offered the money…

  • Robert G. Oler

    With a methane upper stage, I do as well.

  • Jeff2Space

    Yes a methane upper stage would be better. But, better is the enemy of good enough.

    Better is how we got Ares and then SLS instead of just building a side-mounted HLV using the shuttle SRBs and ET “as-is”.

  • envy

    Better is great as long as it can be done in parallel. Iterate on the current working design, instead of scrapping everything and starting over.

    A Raptor upper stage and crossfeed could be done in 2-3 years and would bump FH payload to ~90 tonnes as well as allowing long-duration space operations and LEO refueling.

    Start building 10-15 tonne payloads now, and start funding commercial LV upgrades for later larger upgrades. Sure beats SLS, which is barely funding the base vehicle now, and has no money for current payloads OR future LV upgrades OR larger payloads to use those future LV upgrades.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    That’s reassuring to hear. It’s nice to know Musk can say “no” once a line is crossed. In no way is Falcon or Dragon ready to do a circumlunar flight this year.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I think that might not be the case the more that SX actually produces. If SX starts launching people to LEO they way they do payloads, the holdouts who would go bonkers will be spent. Look at the Russians, giving up on Proton and Angara almost all but dead. While SX was not ready for a lunar flight this year, they probably will be in two years.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, they need to get the Dragon2 flying to the ISS before the Russians kill a NASA astronaut in the Soyuz. But I also think that Elon Musk has lost all interest in the Falcon/Dragon. They served their purpose and now he wants the BFR to fly.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    NASA will keep Musk sane and focused since BFR and BFS won’t be ready for on the order of a decade and I don’t think NASA will be ready to throw away working hardware to make room for the promised spaceships of tomorrow. They’ll pay, and that’ll keep Musk and SX focused.

  • Robert G. Oler

    No…they are barely ready to go to the space station.

  • Robert G. Oler

    In what ever form it actually is going to be. Musk cannot be so “out of it” that he 1 thinks BFR/BFS whatever its called is going to fly in 2022 and 2) go to mars. The plan that they have is nearly nuts.

  • Robert G. Oler

    It was a design to keep industry happy doing what they like to do …build things

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Nearly nuts? It’s nuts. But that said, so long as it does not compromise working systems, is it a bad thing? At his point, how many people is he really stringing along? If it takes SX 15 years to get to Mars it’ll be an amazing improvement over what we’ve had up to this point.

  • Robert G. Oler

    He strings along a lot of the space groupies…BFR and Mars make no sense

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    He does string along groupies. But that’s human nature. Look at the promises of air power in the early 20th cen. It was almost all pap, that took until the 1990’s to really come to the fore. Airpower theory up to the 1980’s will filled with all kinds of cultish groupthink. Eventually it came true, it just took 80 years for the case to be closed. Look at the farce that was airmail. We do space because we WANT to do space. Von Braun and Korolev were both con men who promised rocket bombs to tyrants so they could make space rockets. We’re rich, and we get to entertain our enthusiasms.

  • windbourne

    I think it would be in NASA best interest to start sending some Landers to the poles and start looking around. Could a dragon 2 with larger tanks do the trick?

  • windbourne

    Screw the crew. It is time to get Landers on the poles.

  • redneck

    Depends on the selected crew. Most of them are ugly and the wrong gender to make that a desirable action.

  • windbourne

    Lol.