A return to the moon requires bold action. It is now.
AAmerica’s Apollo, Space Shuttle, and International Space Station programs show how a nation with a strong human space exploration program can lead the world in technological prowess, inspire its people to greatness, and attract strategic partners among like-minded nations.
Now, in preparation for human exploration of Mars, the United States once again has the opportunity to bring the world back to the surface of the moon to establish the first permanent human presence. The elements of a program seem to be falling into place, but what is missing is a main program office with commensurate responsibilities and authorities to take and assume the risk of architectural and technical decisions, control requirements, integrate multiple shift schedules. , and fostering the urgency and attention to detail necessary to control costs, which is done primarily by adhering to promised schedules.
Just getting humans to the surface of the Moon and returning them safely to Earth is a huge challenge. Across the country and spread among myriad contractors, the Saturn 5, Apollo capsule, Command Service Module and Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) were all to be designed and built, and – just as important – had to work with a new vehicle assembly building. , crawler and launch pad. That the United States has accomplished this in less than a decade is still amazing.
A new Mission Control Center in Houston was designed, built, and staffed with engineers who would control flights to the moon, as well as simulators that would allow astronauts to hone new techniques for transiting, rendezvousing, and flying. lunar landing. None of this had ever been done before, and it could not have been done so quickly and therefore so effectively without the program management structure NASA put in place to direct and integrate this great undertaking.
Building and sustaining a permanent human presence on the moon is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than Apollo – and it’s key to eliminating the technological risks that must be overcome before venturing to Mars. We need to develop new approaches to energy production without depending on a logistical trail of fossil fuels, space food production without Earth’s soil, and water sources that can be locked in lunar and Martian ice. We need to develop habitats that can survive harsh environments, resilient and reliable space life support systems, surface transportation vehicles, and manufacturing capabilities for a self-sufficient outpost. These and many other capabilities must be designed, developed, tested, integrated and proven.
After years of investment, the United States is poised to take the lead. The critical Space Launch System (SLS) rocket – the largest since the Apollo-era Saturn 5 – is being prepared for its first test trip early next year. The SLS, with its unprecedented power and capabilities, is the only rocket that can currently send Orion, astronauts and cargo to the moon in a single mission. The Orion capsule is ready to take a crew on a lunar flyby on the second SLS test mission, and contracts for the Human Landing System and Lunar Gateway are being awarded.
Our commercial space industrial base has grown significantly. From an engineering talent perspective, we’ve never been more ready to move forward. In addition to a strong NASA/industry workforce with decades of experience in the shuttle, ISS, national security and commercial space, “NewSpace” has spawned the next generation young rocket scientists who have cut their teeth on launch, satellite design and human LEO operations. In short, the space industrial base is at its most inspired and innovative moment.
But how can NASA achieve greater efficiency from its own workforce, knowing that Artemis’ work is spread across several of its NASA field centers? How can costs be managed to maximize value for ratepayers? How to manage all the necessary contracts in a cost-effective way?
Currently, unlike the Apollo program, NASA does not have a central central program office for Artemis with the authorities and responsibilities required to direct the entire effort. Without this critical organizational element in place, the chances of ensuring synchronized efforts across the enterprise are low, as tribal instincts in NASA centers will undermine efficiency and integration – and decentralize the unit of effort.
The daily hard work of meeting and controlling requirements, integrating schedules, managing budgets, overseeing contractor performance, effectively deploying NASA’s workforce, holding teams accountable, planning a robust set of spaceflight missions and increasing launch cadence, and, ultimately, delivering on the promise is the job of a dedicated senior program office. NASA “re-learned” the need for this approach during the early phases of the ISS program and, predictably, it dusted off the playbook used for Apollo.
We learned technically how to get to and from the moon’s surface as part of the Apollo program, but just as importantly, we learned how to put in place an organizational structure that can effectively lead and manage a diverse set of centers and NASA contractors. Going forward, it will be critical for NASA to incentivize and hold key contractors accountable for meeting performance, cost, and schedule targets.
It’s time to take the best lessons from our past and merge them with the promise of today’s technologies and innovative industrial base. It’s time to set up an Artemis program office, modeled after the Apollo program office, with the long-term strategic vision of human exploration of Mars as the guiding star, but with a short-term laser focus for us bring back to the moon to stay — safely, on time, and within budget.
If successful, America will again reap the benefits of our human exploration program.
Retired US Air Force General Kevin Chilton is the former commander of US Strategic Command. He spent 11 years of his military career as a NASA astronaut, including piloting Space Shuttle Endeavor on STS-49 and STS-59, then commanding STS-76 aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis. Chilton has served on numerous boards, including Aerojet Rocketdyne. He is an independent aerospace defense consultant and serves as a Stellar Advisor for Stellar Solutions, Inc. Other former astronauts collaborated and were consulted on this article.