Accelerated NASA Moon Landing Plan Doesn’t Need Canadian Robotic System

An artist’s concept of Canada’s smart robotic system, Canadarm3, located on the exterior of the Gateway, a small space station in orbit around the Moon. Credits: Canadian Space Agency, NASA.

NASA revealed in teleconference with media last night that it had formally named its return to the moon program, Artemis. In Greek mythology, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo. More importantly for the program, NASA sent Congress its budget amendment request for the fiscal year 2020.

Media were given short notice late yesterday afternoon of a teleconference scheduled for the early evening. Scheduling a teleconference in the evening is not something NASA normally does. The call with media was to outline NASA’s budget amendment ahead of the public release today that was being forwarded to Congress. NASA had faced pressure of late to get the amendment to Congress.

The budget amendment request is a result of the White House and Trump administrations desire to move up NASA’s moon plan to land astronauts on the moon from 2028 to 2024.

The budget request is for an additional US$1.6 billion in NASA’s fiscal year 2020 budget. This is over and above their initial request of $US21 billion. The funding amounts to an 8% increase over their initial request. The Associated Press reported that the additional funds would come from the Pell Grants program, a federal program that help students pay for college.

NASA provided the following budget amendment breakdown;

Human Lunar Landing System: This budget includes $1 billion to enable NASA to begin supporting the development of commercial human lunar landing systems three years earlier than previously envisioned to bring humans to the Moon’s surface by 2024.

This acquisition strategy will allow NASA to purchase an integrated commercial lunar lander that will transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface and back.

Focusing Gateway development on capabilities needed to support a lunar landing of 2024 allowed a scope reduction of $321 million. This budget amendment shifts potential development of additional Gateway capabilities into the future.

Space Launch System Rocket and Orion Spacecraft: With an additional $651 million for SLS and Orion, this budget supports the most powerful rocket in the world and our new spacecraft to ultimately take the astronauts to the staging point for reaching the lunar surface, the Gateway in lunar orbit.

Exploration Technology: An additional $132 million for technologies that will support NASA to advance key precursor capabilities on the lunar surface. This includes various exploration technologies like solar electric propulsion and a demonstration converting polar ice to water.

Science: An augmentation of $90 million to enable increased robotic exploration of the Moon’s polar regions in advance of a human mission.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine characterized the funding request as a “down payment” for the program. Out years would see expenditures ramp up, but would not be as large an expenditure as had been previously reported of US$8 billion a year over five years. He said NASA was still working on out years funding needs.

Canadian contribution still wanted

During the teleconference Bridenstine and other NASA officials taking part in the call including Bill Gerstenmaier, the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, emphasized that the international community was wanted, needed and would be an important part of the plan.

The new plan with respect to the Lunar Gateway has been modified. In the documents provided to media, it was made clear that changes to the Gateway were coming. In its summary NASA said “focusing Gateway development on capabilities needed to support a lunar landing of 2024 allowed a scope reduction of $321 million. This budget amendment shifts potential development of additional Gateway capabilities into the future.”

Lunar Gateway
Lunar Gateway. Credit: NASA.

So with NASA deferring elements of the Gateway not needed for the new plan, comes the question of whether Canada’s robotic system is needed to as part of the revised 2024 plan. In a follow-up email with Gerstenmaier, SpaceQ asked, with the updated moon plan and the revised architecture, is the expected Canadian contributed robotic arm (Canadarm 3) one of the capabilities needed to support a lunar landing in 2024? Gerstenmaier replied that “at this point in our planning the robotic arm is not required for the 2024 landing.” He also said “we would like the arm as soon as available. The CSA arm concept is very creative and be used inside as well.”

So while a robotic system is not a capability needed right away for NASA’s revised plan, it is something NASA still wants, and would be needed going forward. It’s important to remember that the primary plan is not to just do “flags and footprints”, but to establish a permanent lunar base in the south pole.

The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) told SpaceQ in an email that “Canada’s bold objective for enabling exploration of the Moon remains unchanged. The Lunar Gateway remains a core element of a sustainable US and international lunar architecture, and Canadian robotics will be essential to Gateway.”

They further stated that “although NASA’s revised plan for lunar exploration has not been unveiled in detail yet, the new plan, now supported by their budget request, requires Gateway as part of its means to land humans on the Moon rapidly and sustainably.” This last statement while true, does not reflect that Canada’s robotic system isn’t need for NASA’s 2024 plan.

Beyond Canada’s contribution of a robotic system, the CSA is in discussions with NASA about possibly making other contributions in Science and Human Exploration and Operations according to Gerstenmaier. The CSA has already been looking at contributing health related technology and services.

On this topic the CSA said “Canada remains committed to providing AI-enabled robotics (Canadarm3) for Gateway and to becoming part of that international lunar architecture per the set schedule of Gateway assembly. CSA will continue working with NASA as the partnership develops the complete plan for Gateway.”

NASA’s amended budget request also included US$90 million “to enable increased robotic exploration of the Moon’s polar regions in advance of a human mission.” As Canada has been investing for almost a decade in rover technology with a focus on the moon, perhaps this another area Canada could contribute in support a lunar landing in 2024.

About Marc Boucher

Boucher is an entrepreneur, writer, editor & publisher. He is the founder of SpaceQ Media Inc. and CEO and co-founder of SpaceRef Interactive LLC. Boucher has 20+ years working in various roles in the space industry and a total of 30 years as a technology entrepreneur including creating Maple Square, Canada's first internet directory and search engine.

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