With Bill Gerstenmaier about Orion


William Gerstenmaier, viceadministrator of NASA, answered to questions from the Polish Astronautical Forum (Polskie Forum Astronautyczne) during IAC 2015.

From October 12th to 16th 2015, Jerusalem hosted the International Astronautical Congress IAC 2015 – the biggest business-scientific event of space sector.

William Gerstenmaier podczas briefingu na temat AMS, 3 kwietnia 2013 / Credit: NASA

William Gerstenmaier / Credit: NASA

One of the Congress’ special guests were Bill H. Gerstenmaier. He is the Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate at NASA, some of his duties include providing strategic direction for all aspects of NASA human space exploration programs and space launch vehicles. He directs operations of the International Space Station (ISS), provides strategic guidance for commercial crew programs and directs the development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.

Kosmonauta.net’s co-editor Jack Scott-Reeve interviews Mr Gerstenmaierem about development of NASA manned spaceflight programme, Orion in particular. Questions has been formulated by readers and users of Polskiego Forum Astronautycznego (Polish Astronautical Forum; user name in brackets).

Some specialists and politicians state that that the Orion program is not fully secured, that there is not enough money to build other SLS variants and plan missions after Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). Has NASA enough power to secure it? Is NASA confident enough to push the program through Congress? (NH2501)

Rakieta SLS - jeden z obecnie najdroższych projektów NASA / Credits - NASA

SLS – now one of the most expensive NASA projects / Credit: NASA

In terms of both Orion and SLS, we have sufficient funding to go ahead and continue through the activities that are planned, subject to the budget which gets approved annually. We have the funding for the EM-1 flight which will fly with an uncrewed version of Orion to a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon on top of an SLS, and that’s all moving forward. A key decision point review was made regarding the crewed EM-2 flight, establishing a 70% joint confidence level of a 2023 launch date. However, we’re still working to our internal management agreement launch date of 2021. Technically and budget wise, it looks reasonable, but it has a substantially lower joint confidence level. However, it’s still the right thing to do moving forward.

We’re putting in place all the ground infrastructure to launch all this stuff, that’s all taken care of in budget and funding. We have shuttle main engines available for 4 launches, and are starting a program to build new expendable rocket engines based off the shuttle design using modern manufacturing. You’d be intrigued to see what we are doing, where a lot of stuff used to be machined out of large pieces of metal, we are now 3D printing ducts and low value components, lowering manufacturing costs.

We are similarly focused on lowering manufacturing costs with the SLS wherever we can. We use reaction friction welding extensively on a computer controlled automated assembly. Our goal is to have a system that can fly one or two times per year and still be affordable within the budget levels allocated today. I think sometimes people just focus on the flights, but we are not building flights, rather a program that will be supportable for multiple decades, that will be used for exploration activities well into the future. We’re designing with consideration that perhaps Orion and SLS will be used for 30 years, similar to the span of use of the Space Shuttle. We may even compromise on some of the initial mission objectives to ensure that we have a long term vision.

Regarding physical work in the US, we have never undertaken this much physical development since Apollo. I have almost all the Aluminium large manufacturing/machining  shops tied up in the US, we are producing a lot of hardware and a lot of equipment. There is no question that this a real program, we are moving forward and those dates are reasonable.

So the short answer to all that is we have sufficient budget and approval to do the program and are moving forward. There is always threats out there, but I don’t see any substantial threats.

How far is the Orion used in EM-1 and EM-2 missions from a Mars profiled design? What would need to be changed? (wuzetek)

MPCV Orion z europejskim modułem serwisowym ESM, wizualizacja / Credits: ESA/D. Ducros

MPCV Orion with European service module ESM – visualization / Credits: ESA/D. Ducros

There is a couple of problems to address. First of all, the heat shield is essentially designed for lunar return velocities, roughly 11km/s. Mars return velocities can be a bit higher, 12-13km/s. If Orion were to go all the way to Mars, we would have to look at heat shield redesign, which is not unheard of. Orion has a 21 day crew capability for 4 crew members, but it doesn’t have life support for extended duration. To be used in a Mars mission with year duration, Orion would have to be augmented with some kind of habitation capability such as larger volume and life support systems.

Depending on what we do in the vicinity of Mars, whether we are going to land or just orbit, there would be a descent stage and an ascent stage. There is quite a bit of hardware we would need to engineer for a Mars landing mission.

We have recently published a document, “Journey to Mars”, which conceptually defines our plan moving forward. We don’t want to design the mission all the way from Earth to Mars, like an Apollo style of discrete missions. What I’d like to do is build hardware and infrastructure that supports the ability for us to learn to operate in space in the proving ground region around the Moon, and as we build that hardware and new technology emerges, we can adapt our mission architecture to take this into account.

Pierwsza faza ARM - przechwycenie planetoidy / Credits - NASA

1st phase of ARM mission – capturing an asteroid / Credits: NASA

We’re still undertaking a lot of studies in orbital dynamics/mechanics. It might be nice to go to Mars from the lunar vicinity. You’re in the lunar gravity well, but it’s not quite so problematic to get out of compared to the Earth gravity well. We may look at actually returning back into cis-lunar space or back into orbit around the Moon. In the case of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, where we are going to take this large boulder, swing it past the Earth and scrape off velocity, come in past the Earth and scrape off velocity around the Moon, and then drop into an orbit around the Moon, there is potential to do this for a Mars human return mission. In this case they’d come back to the Moon, and re-enter from the from the vicinity of the Moon back to Earth.

The Journey to Mars document includes 7 principles which shows how we are trying to undertake this activity. It lays out in big picture terms, such as programmatic, budget, international agreements and commercial sector operations of how we can move forward. There’s a lot of technical work that needs to be done, we’ve identified all those challenges and we don’t need to solve all of those at once. We will solve them in some ordered fashion and work through the process and make the mission design flexible to adapt to what technical problems we run into.

Should the planning of a manned Mars mission anticipate a sample return mission first, for scientific and technical purposes? (ekoplaneta)

If I were to talk to the scientific community, I think they would like to have a sample return because they would like grab a sample of Mars before it is contaminated by humans. This would be a pristine control sample of what the Martian environment was like before there was significant human presence there. Also I think some of the scientific community would like to have a sample back to make sure that there is nothing in the Martian dust that is toxic to humans from a respiratory standpoint.

If a cruise module was seriously damaged or malfunction during deep space flight, such as in the region of the Moon, Mars or an Asteroid, will Orion be capable of securing astronaut return to Earth? How many days could it sustain the crew? (TymekPS)

It has a 21 day life support capability, which works well within the lunar architecture as you are only several days away from return. Orion could be a nice augmentation to a habitation system and provide a backup, somewhat similar to Apollo 13 and the lunar descent module. I think the system’s redundancy is going to have to be substituted once you head towards Mars, which is why we have described this proving ground region around the Moon. We want to use this region to shake out systems design, vehicle design and redundancy to make sure we’ve got everything right because once we commit to a Mars class mission where the return times are months, we better have a high probability that we are going to be successful and have worked through all of those hard questions. I believe the right place to learn this is in the vicinity of the Moon where your separation from the Earth means to you have to address these problems, but if something breaks you can get back to Earth in bad situations.

What do you think of an international lunar base (Moon Village) as a successor to the ISS? (JSR)

Baza księżycowa / Credit: ESA

Moon base / Credit: ESA

When I look forward to Mars as a horizon goal for us, I consider if a lunar base is absolutely required in that chain of activities, and I don’t believe it is. The reason is that I’m willing to take some risk of surface operations on Mars not being fully worked out as I believe we can do some of that through robot precursors or other activities. Another thing is that a Moon landing is totally different to a Mars landing due to the lack of atmosphere on the former, which would require some work to be done on the entry, descent and landing. So I want us (the US) not to focus on spending our resources on building a lunar lander, we’ll focus on entry, descent and landing if another international partner wants to use their resources to work on a lunar lander.

We could learn some stuff on ascent, as the ascent vehicle leaving the Moon could be similar to an ascent vehicle leaving Mars. However it isn’t absolutely necessary to have a human presence to learn lessons as this could be enabled by robotic missions.

The last thing that is intriguing to us is potential benefit in using resources found throughout the solar system as we go to Mars. Specifically we see a lot of potential of being able to use lunar resources, it looks as if there is water on the North/South poles. If that’s held in the regolith in some way that we can easily extract it and create oxygen, hydrogen or even methane and liquid oxygen, this would be a huge benefit to us. So I believe there is a need to explore the Moon robotically, which we would happily do with our international partners if they would like to do that. Perhaps we could assess how oxygen and hydrogen is bound in the regolith used a rover commanded remotely from lunar orbit with Orion. If we were to know how volatiles were held in the surface, and could obtain propellant from the Moon rather than carrying it all from the Earth, it would tremendously reduce the amount of mass we would need to take to orbit. So there’s not an interest in a lunar habitat like ISS, but there is an interest in what resources we have on the Moon that we could extract that could change the Journey to Mars architecture. So our focus is towards Mars, and getting there in a reasonable amount of time. I don’t see a tremendous advantage in an international lunar base, but I don’t preclude it if our partners would want to do that internationally.

Are you confident man will stand on Mars during your lifetime? (Jacob)

Wizja lat 30. XXI wieku? Astronauta spogląda na Marsa z powierzchni Fobosa / Credits - NASA

Vision of 30’s of 21th century? An astronaut looks on Mars from the surface of it’s moon, Phobos / Credit: NASA

We have the capability to have a crew on Mars in my lifetime. There is a lot of technical challenges in front of us, and this would be probably be one of the most major global undertakings we would do. While we have the technical capability to do it, there are many other significant considerations such as political will, will of the people and more.

It’s tough to say with confidence, but the way I think of it is that it is our job to move human presence into the solar system, and do it in a sustainable manner. When I look at the budgets and the technical constraints, rather than pick a date certain for these activities, it is more important we are making steady measurable progress that is demonstrable towards this ultimate goal of moving human presence into the solar system. If we do that in my lifetime, and we are on a solid path of making progress and moving forward I will be very confident we will be there eventually. For now, we are in a kind of start-up phase where we are trying to see the reality of whether this phase gets acceptance and it’s a way to move forward.

In the past we have always done monolithic kind of missions, such as achieving the big challenge of 10 years to the Moon, but we didn’t do it in a sustainable way or think about how we want to take the time to do this in a way that the program could keep being built on. In the US we have had a lot of programs that get started and then stopped, we need to figure out a sustainable way to make progress. Rather than ask me if we will have boots on Mars by the end of my life, the question ought to be , “Do we have a sustainable program showing measurable progress towards humans living in space”. We started that journey with the ISS, as of November this year we will have humans on orbit for 15 years. In my lifetime I would like to see us in the vicinity of the Moon, operating, learning skills, designing systems and enacting methodology that will allow us to continue to move human presence into the solar system, rather than the single narrow focus of just having crews on Mars. If we were to achieve boots on Mars without the sustained presence I think that would not be good for us. I want us to figure out a way that globally we see this as a challenge and we work for it in a measured fashion.

Interview by Jack Scott-Reeve.


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