Alabama to oversee NASA human moon lander; Texas isn't happy about it

Letter: Texas senators, congressman tell NASA to 'hold off'

File photo: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center during the partial federal government shutdown at the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., Wednesday, Jan.. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was in Alabama on Friday to provide an update on where NASA stands on its goal to send humans back to the moon by 2024 under the Artemis program.

Standing in front of a 149-foot-tall tank for the Space Launch System, Bridenstine and three U.S. congressmen revealed that the development of the lander that will carry humans down to the moon’s surface will be overseen by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

Two-thirds of the commercial lander will be overseen by Marshall and the other third will be at Johnson Space Center in Houston. The human lander program is led by veteran engineer Lisa Watson-Morgan, at Marshall, and will require 360 jobs at different NASA centers, including 140 in Huntsville and 87 in Houston, Bridenstine said.

Marshall will work with private American "companies to rapidly develop, integrate, and demonstrate a human lunar landing system that can launch to the Gateway, pick up astronauts and ferry them between the Gateway and the surface of the Moon," according to a NASA release.

Last month, NASA put out a call to American companies that might be interested in providing systems to develop a human landing system. In the coming months, NASA will issue a final solicitation for proposals.

"What we plan to do with industry is to bring their speed and our experience to meet this 2024 goal," Watson-Morgan said.

The decision to place the human lander project at Marshall ruffled the feather of some Texas senators and lawmakers, as first reported by Politico.

During the Apollo program, crewed oversight operations were held at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, which is still home to the U.S. astronaut training center and other human mission operations.

Ahead of Bridenstine’s visit to the Huntsville facility, Texas senators and U.S. Rep. Brian Babin wrote a letter to the administrator, urging him to reconsider.

“While the Marshall Flight Center specializes in rocketry and spacecraft propulsion, and is undoubtedly the leader in these areas, it is the Johnson Space Center, which has been and continues to be, ground zero for human space exploration,” the letter read.

The senators and congressman requested Bridenstine “hold off on any formal announcements” until they have been briefed on the matter, according to the letter.

Babin was scheduled to be in attendance Friday for the update, along with Alabama Republican U.S. Reps. Mo Brooks and Robert Aderholt and Tennessee U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, also a Republican.
Several hours before the event, however, Babin pulled out of the event.

"Congressman Babin will not be in attendance today at Marshall Space Flight Center," Babin's press secretary, Sarah Reese, said in an email to News 6. "When or if Administrator Bridenstine makes an announcement regarding the Artemis lunar lander program, Congressman Babin will be ready to provide an official statement at that time."

Asked about the political discord, Bridenstine said all of NASA's agencies will need to work together for the Artemis program and the decision to place the human lander operations at Marshall was not "made lightly."

Meanwhile, Brooks, Aderholt and DesJarlais spoke at the announcement and took the opportunity to ask their fellow members of Congress to help them approve the $1.6 billion NASA has requested to kick-start the Artemis program.

[STORY: KSC's first woman engineer laid groundwork for first female launch director]

Bridenstine has been on a tour of NASA facilities involved in the new moon program.

On Thursday, he made a stop in New Orleans at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility, where parts of NASA’s powerful rocket that is expected to launch humans to the moon and beyond is under construction.

The Space Launch System has been in development since before the end of the space shuttle program in 2011 and is about 90% complete, Bridenstine said during his visit. The first launch, known as Artemis-1, from Kennedy Space Center, is currently on track for the end of next year, according to NASA.

In March, the Trump administration instructed NASA to shave four years off the agency’s timeline to return humans to the moon. Since then, NASA has been awarding contracts to commercial companies to develop landers and other hardware to meet that new deadline.

Artemis is expected to cost $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years.