This week NASA released its budget amendment to account for the Trump administration’s desire to accelerate the country’s plan to land humans on the moon in 2024 instead of 2028. The new plan has created problems for NASA’s international partners who are scrambling to see what it means for them. Canada is no exception.
The problem for Canada, as we reported on Tuesday, is that NASA is descoping elements of the Lunar Gateway. In other words, the Gateway is getting smaller. The plan is to eventually increase its size. But anything that is not critical to effort to land astronauts on the moon is being removed from the architecture, for now.
So it’s important to understand what Canada’s contribution means to the Gateway, the plan to land astronauts on the moon in 2024, and the plan to build a permanent base on the moon’s south pole.
That plan is centrally focused on Canada’s contribution of a next-generation AI robotic system commonly referred to as Canadarm3 for now.
For the International Space Station (ISS), Canada contributed the Mobile Base System, a movable platform that includes the robotic Canadarm2 and Dextre. Canada’s contribution was in the critical path, meaning the space station wouldn’t have been built without it. For the Lunar Gateway, Canada’s Canadarm3 is not in the critical path. In other words, NASA could do without it, at first. And therein lies the problem.
In a follow-up email with Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Gerstenmaier wanted to provide a further comment on the matter. He said “the arm is not absolutely required for the lunar landing. We are making accommodations for the arm in early Gateway and will be ready to use the arm as soon as it is available.”
NASA has to be careful with its international partners. The agency has spent years building up a plan with partners, including Canada, that allowed each partner to contribute what it felt it could and would be needed for a long-term plan that includes the return to the moon and an eventual Mars mission.
The Trump administration isn’t as concerned about the international partners. It wants American astronauts on the moon using American made landers and hardware. But the political reality is that NASA and the administration have to sell the vision to Congress as they will need to approve the eventual larger funding requests that will be coming in NASA’s fiscal 2021 budget and later.
Canada was the first country to officially sign on the Lunar Gateway program, mere weeks before the White House changed NASA’s orders. NASA does not want to hurt the relationship its built with Canada. So while Canada’s contribution of at least the Canadarm3 system isn’t in the critical path from the technology perspective, it might now be from the political perspective.
NASA still hasn’t released the complete details of the new Artemis Program to the international partners. In part because decisions are still being made on the final architecture. In the meantime, Canada will have an election this fall. The Liberals made a big deal of announcing over $2B in funding which has the moon as a central focus of a new space strategy. They aren’t likely to change that plan unless something drastic happens south of the border. What a different government would do is something we might learn once the campaign starts.
NASA is being clear it still wants contributions from Canada and the international partners. However, the contribution of the Canadarm3 system is not in the critical path to get U.S. astronauts to the surface of the moon as part of smaller initial Lunar Gateway. The robotic system will be critical later on in the program, and make no mistake about it, Canada has a tremendous lead in space-based robotic technology. Yes, others may develop similar technology, but they don’t have the history and knowledge base that Canada has to work with. As more activity is spent on the lunar surface, robotic and human, Canada can cash in by being the commercial provider of advanced AI robotic technology. That in part is why Canada is continuing to fund advanced space-based robotic research.
If you haven’t heard the media briefing by NASA administration Jim Bridenstine on the budget amendment and where he eloquently announces the Artemis program, SpaceQ has the full NASA media teleconference including reporter questions in this weeks podcast.
The NASA Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Amendment documents are available here:
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