NASA announced today that the lunar lander that marks the agency’s historic return to the moon in 2024 will be based in Alabama instead of the Johnson Space Center.
Specifically, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville will lead the development of a lunar lander for the agency’s Artemis program, which aims to land astronauts on the moon in 2024.
The lunar lander is a transfer-type spacecraft that will be awaiting astronauts aboard the Gateway — an ISS-like space station but in lunar orbit intended to serve as a short holding area for astronauts and spacecraft — and will be bringing astronauts down and back the moon’s surface.
Meanwhile, the Marshall Space Flight Center is where the family of rockets used in the Apollo program that first sent astronauts to the moon a half-century ago was built.
According to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the MSFC was selected to be in charge of the lunar lander because of its extensive experience with propulsion systems, which will be crucial for executing safe landings and liftoffs from the lunar surface.
“There is no place in the world that is more experienced” in propulsion, Bridenstine said during a news briefing at the center. “This was not a decision that was made lightly,” Bridenstine said. “A lot of hard work has been done here in Huntsville over, really, well over 10 years now regarding landing systems,” he added.
In particular, The lunar lander project is expected to create 360 new jobs, 140 of which will be in Huntsville, while the rest will be spread out to NASA centers across the country, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said during the news conference.
Lisa Watson-Morgan, a former Deputy Engineering Director at the agency will be managing the operations with the human landing system, Bridenstine announced.
Bridenstine also announced that the new human landing system will be managed by Lisa Watson-Morgan, the former Deputy Engineering Director of MSFC.
Watson-Morgan will oversee the project that will land “the first woman and the next man on the moon,” Bridenstine said.
Notably, MSFC will be leading the development of the lander, but not necessarily its construction. Most of the physical work needed for the project should be handled by NASA’s private industry partners.
Companies including billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Lockheed Martin Corp are developing different potential components of the lunar lander.
Most likely because the entire Artemis mission is estimated to cost around $20 to $30 billion over the next five years, while NADA has only been granted $1.6 billion by the US Congress.
“What we plan to do is collaborate with industry and bring their speed and our experience to try to have the best team that can make this 2024 goal,” Watson-Morgan said.
However, NASA’s call to base lunar lander operations in Alabama faced criticism from public officials.
The two U.S. senators from Texas, Republicans Ted Cruz, and John Cornyn, and a Republican U.S. congressman from the state, Brian Babin, told in a letter Thursday that the agency should reconsider the decision and hold off on making an announcement. The three lawmakers argued that Johnson Space Center is a more fitting area to anchor the lunar landing program.
“We are deeply concerned that NASA is not only disregarding this history but that splitting up the work on the lander between two different geographic locations is an unnecessary and a counterproductive departure from the unquestionable success of the previous lunar lander program,” stated the letter.
Bridenstine, on the other hand, responded that he “understands some of their concerns,” telling the Texas members of Congress. “We love the work that Johnson does.” However, MSFC’s propulsion experience is what’s needed to construct the lunar lander, adding that “there is no place in the world that is more experienced and better than the Marshall Space Flight Center.”
In related news, NASA has chosen Maxar Technologies to build the propulsion module for the space agency’s new Lunar Gateway.
Currently, the center is building the Space Launch System mega-rocket, touted to be NASA’s most powerful and will stand about 322 feet tall (98 m) when fully assembled and will launch NASA’s future Artemis missions.