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InfoQ Homepage Presentations NASA’s Return to the Moon: Managing Complexity in the Artemis Program

NASA’s Return to the Moon: Managing Complexity in the Artemis Program



Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo overviews NASA's plans to land the first woman and person of color on the Moon, and describes the complexity planned with each mission and how that complexity is being managed.


Alicia Dwyer Cianciolo is the Senior Technical Lead for Advanced Entry, Descent and Landing Vehicle Technology Development at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. Currently, she serves as the Systems Engineering Team Lead Deputy for the Artemis Program’s Human Landing System.

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Cianciolo: A famous president once said, about going to the Moon, we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. What did he mean because they're hard? Why are they hard and what makes them so? These are some of the topics we're going to cover in my talk, entitled, "NASA's Return to the Moon: Managing Complexity in the Artemis Program." My name is Alicia Cianciolo. I'm an Aerospace Engineer at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. For the past three years, almost four now, I've had the amazing opportunity to serve as the systems engineering team deputy for the Artemis's Human Landing System program. We're going to talk about that. I'm going to give you a little bit of perspective from that experience. You guys are all probably familiar with the Apollo programs of the '60s and '70s. In Greek mythology, did you know Apollo had a twin sister, and her name is Artemis? It sets the theme that we've been given from the administration, to maintain the leadership in space exploration and space sciences at NASA, by this time around landing the first woman and the first person of color on the surface of the Moon this decade. We're going to do it different this time. We're not just going to go for short stays and exploring for a few days. We're actually going to start building a sustainable presence, with outposts and things that we can use to not only explore the Moon itself, but then prepare for future missions to Mars and beyond. We're going to talk about three things. First, what is the Artemis program? Why is it complex? How we're addressing some of those complexities, from my perspective in one of the programs.

What Is the Artemis Program?

What is Artemis? It's actually a combination of about eight different programs. If you want to talk about starting with complexity, let's start talking about all these things. A lot of them are ground based. We have our launch systems and our communications and our operations. I'm going to talk about the things that leave Earth, and the first one is the Space Launch System. This is the new NASA rocket that is about 15% bigger than the Saturn V that sent the Apollo capsules to the Moon. It's also part of something else that we have perched at the top of that, is the new Orion capsule, that will carry the crew to the Moon. It can take four people to the Moon or six people to the space station. We also worked with our European partners, European Space Agency, ESA, has provided the service module for this capsule. Then you get to the project that I work on, the Human Landing System. Right now, we have contracted this out to SpaceX. As my position as the system engineering lead, we are responsible for making sure that SpaceX builds that vehicle to the NASA specifications.

Just recently, we announced a second lunar lander. Blue Origin will be our second provider to build a vehicle to land the people on the surface of the Moon. We like acronyms at NASA. This is EHP, which really stands for the Extra Vehicular Activity and Human Surface Mobility Program. This is the spacesuits that they use to walk around on the surface. They are their own little spaceship, because they have to keep them alive and everything on the surface of the Moon. This is its own program. We just awarded this to Axiom this past year. Then, beyond that, we have the Gateway. The Gateway is another element of how we're doing the Artemis missions differently. We're designing what is essentially a small space station that will remain in orbit around the Moon. Then all these other vehicles will dock to it and go to the surface of the Moon from there, so we have a continual presence in the vicinity of the Moon. This is what Artemis is. We combine all of these different programs into different missions.

First, I'll just give you a little bit more information about each of those specific programs. Again, this is the Space Launch System. There you see at the very top, the Orion capsule that will carry the four crew. Then the comparisons to the Saturn V, to the Statue of Liberty appropriately here in New York. Then its capability to carry more cargo to space than the shuttle. This is the NASA design rocket. We'll move on to the Orion. Here it is compared to Apollo. You can see a difference in size, some of the statistics alongside. Essentially, the difference is it can carry four to six crew, a little bit bigger, a little bit more capable than the Apollo capsules. Then we move on to the Human Landing System. Again, this is the portion that I work on, the program that I am participating in. This is the SpaceX Starship vehicle. It is 15 stories high. The next time you go outside, look up and count 15 stories, and imagine, that's what we're delivering to the surface of the Moon. Yes, this is for real. It is a single stage lander, it will all land on the surface, and it will all ascend back up to take the crew back to Orion. Then, we have a second lander, Blue Origin. These will be the vehicles that take the people to the surface of the Moon. Then of course, Gateway. It'll have a high powered solar electric propulsion module and habitat module for the crew, so then they can live there. Then you see a little image of the Orion coming to dock with it, then the Starship would also dock with it, and then the Blue Origin would also dock with it for future missions. This is the plan.

Let me show you how we combine these different elements into different Artemis missions. Artemis I included the Space Launch System and Orion. We've launched this. This launched last November, if you guys were following, November 16th. It launched from Florida. You can follow my numbers around, headed out to the Moon, actually deployed about 10 different SmallSats along the way. Once it got to the Moon, it did a powered flyby there at number nine, to put it into a very large orbit around the Moon where it could check out all the systems. I think it actually broke a record for the crew rated vehicle that was farthest from the Earth. It set some new records here. Went in orbit around, then came back, and at 13 did a powered flyby of the Moon and headed back to the Earth, the capsule, and the service module. There are 15. You see they separate, and only the crew capsule comes back down. It splashed down off the coast of California. It was remarkably, amazingly successful.

Now we're getting ready for Artemis II. Artemis II is scheduled to launch the end of next year, 2024. The thing we're adding in this time is crew. Last time we checked out most of the base systems, now we'll be testing out their breathing systems, the bathrooms, everything that the crew needs to go on. It looks a little bit different. We're going to test a few other things with the crew on board. Unlike Artemis I that launched and headed straight to the Moon, this one's going to launch into a very highly elliptical Earth orbit. That way they can test out some of the proximity operations, the docking and undocking in Earth orbit so that if something goes wrong, we can bring them back quickly. If all that works out, then at about number nine, there you see, they will do the large burn, send them out to the Moon. This is like an Apollo 8 style. It goes out, slingshots and comes back just to test out all the systems for the crew. They will not be going to the surface of the Moon in this mission. It's the first crewed test flight since Apollo. Just in April, we announced the crew members for this mission. Right there in the middle is Reid Wiseman, he will serve as the commander. We have Victor Glover as the pilot. Christina Koch, the mission specialist. Our Canadian friend who did not start the fires, gets to go with us on this first mission, Jeremy Hansen, so he'll be joining us on this.

Then, we finally get to Artemis III, which is the one I've been working on for the past few years. You can see here where it's getting increasingly complex. We're going to add in the Human Landing System. This will be the Starship for Artemis III. Then of course we'll need the spacesuits for the crew, so we'll add those in as well. This gets a little crazier, a little bit different. Starts out similar to Artemis I. You launch from Florida, in the SLS and Orion, it heads out to the Moon. Only this time, unlike Apollo that stayed in an equatorial orbit, we're going to transition to what we're calling, and I'm going to rename it, a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit. It's that very large, gray orbit that you see there. We like it because we can see Earth from it at all times. We can communicate with anything in orbit all the time, but it does complicate some other things, and we'll talk about that. Once Orion gets out there, it will perform that burn, get into that very large elliptical orbit. Then it will have to meet up and rendezvous and dock with Starship that will already be there. It will have to go out first. It'll stay in that orbit until it does a burn. There you can see the descent where it will do a burn. They will undock, and Starship will descend to the Moon. It will then transfer to the upper right there into a low lunar orbit so it goes from a very large orbit to a smaller one, again, to check out all the systems, make sure everything works. Then once we're sure, we'll do a burn and land at the South Pole this time. We'll talk about why we land at the South Pole. They're planning to spend six-and-a-half days there for Artemis III. Then, once the six-and-a-half days are over, they'll do a launch off the surface back to the low lunar orbit. Then at the right time they'll depart that and rendezvous and dock with Orion in the very large NRHO, which we're going to call the Gateway Orbit. When Gateway is there, it'll be its orbit and it will be easier to say as well. That's the plan.

I mentioned we have to have Starship out there first, and so a little bit of planning needs to go into getting Starship out there. Here's the current plan for getting Starship to the Moon. We're going to start clear over on the left. The plan right now is to launch a storage depot, basically an empty large gas tank. We're going to launch it to orbit. SpaceX will launch it to orbit. Then they will launch propellant aggregation tankers, and they'll send a few of those up there. They will rendezvous and dock. They will transfer propellant until the storage depot is full. When the storage depot is full, then and only then will we launch Starship. Starship will rendezvous, dock with it, and then transfer the propellant from the depot to Starship. When it's full and everything looks good, then we'll send Starship to that NRHO, that Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit, that Gateway Orbit around the Moon. We'll check everything out there. Only then, when everything's checked out, will we allow the Artemis III SLS and Orion to launch. When that goes, then, of course, Orion makes it to the Moon, rendezvous with Starship two crew jump into Starship. Starship goes to the surface. Then they spend their six days there. Will head back to Orion, rendezvous and dock, transfer back to Orion, undock, and they'll come back to Earth.

Managing Complexity 1: Mission Segments

What can go wrong? This is the challenge that we've been given for Artemis III. I will stop here and just talk quickly about managing complexity. Number one in this. As a system engineer, my job is to basically make sure my team can certify this vehicle for flight. We are not building this. We are purchasing this flight from SpaceX, but it has to meet our requirements. I have a team and we have divided their mission into segments. I have a team that manages just the uncrewed segment, everything that happens in this vehicle without crew on it. They have to know everything about it. Then when we get to certifying it for flight, they're the ones that have to basically sign off. I have a team that is the rendezvous and docking team. They're in charge of everything that happens up to and at docking and then undocking. I also have a team that does docked ops. They are making sure that our vehicle is checked out and works while we're docked with Orion for this whole mission. Of course, then you have to undock. Then we have the deorbit, descent and landing team. This is actually where I started out. In fact, the first 15 years of my career was doing entry, descent and landing for Mars missions. I got to work on the Curiosity. I was part of the landing team for Curiosity and InSight Landers. We'd spent a lot of time developing the new technologies to go from landing 300 kilograms to 900 kilograms on the surface of the Mars.

NASA, in the middle of about 2015 came to us and said, what if we wanted to send humans to Mars, what entry technologies would we have to invest in now to make that happen? I spent about five years working with a team to develop those advanced entry, descent and landing technologies, which we were just able to start flight testing this year, which was really fabulous. The point was, we had figured out a lot of the things that NASA needed to invest in. Then in 2019, they said, we're going to go back to the Moon, so can you come and bring all that stuff with you, so we can test it at the Moon, and make sure it works, so when we go to Mars, it's ready to go. That's where I started out was in the deorbit, descent and landing group here. After about a year, they moved me on up to system engineering. Now I'm kind of over all these. That's just how I fit into this and how I got to be the system engineering team deputy. Then we have a team that's solely just concerned about what happens on the surface. Starship has an elevator. They have to make sure that all the requirements for getting the crew out of this 15-story building, and to the surface, everything works. Of course, then we have the ascent, making sure that we get back to orbit. Then of course, rendezvous and docking. Then we have another docked operations, until they separate and come back. This is the team that I manage. There's about 40 of us that take care of each of the segments. Then we have certain ones that run across all the segments like software, communications, the integrated testing, so then we have a lot of just integrated groups, in addition to the segment leads. This is one way we're trying to manage some of those complexities, break it into, obviously, smaller pieces.

Managing Complexity 2: Contracts

There's other things besides just the fact that this is a hard technical problem that we're trying to solve, we got extra challenges on the way that the contracts were written. I won't go into too much detail, but I'll just give you a feel for the traditional way, and the new way. Orion and SLS, the Space Launch System, were contracted under what we call the cost-plus model. The companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, would give us their estimate for how much it would cost to develop this. Then we would get the real cost, and we have to go ahead and pay that. Sometimes they would be a little bit different. In this particular case, NASA owns the vehicle. We own the vehicle. We determine who flies on it. We own all of it. We control the whole flight thing. This program began in 2011, when they retired the shuttle. These are built. They flew. We've already flown Artemis I. That's a known entity. Then you have the Human Landing System and the crew suits that we just awarded the contracts in the last couple of years. These are not built. They're working on them. They are not built, but we have requirements. They were developed under a firm fixed price. We awarded SpaceX just about $3 billion to deliver us this vehicle. They have to do it for that. It can take longer, but we aren't going to pay them any more. If we change any of the requirements, we will pay the difference. It's the same thing for the spacesuits, we've got the requirements. They have to build them to our specifications. We can't tell them how to build it. There are very different perspectives here. We have a lot of the folks who've been working on these programs for 10 years, and then we come and tell them, just because you can't do something, we can't change our requirements, it's going to cost us.

Here's one example. Anybody go camping in an RV? There are three very important tanks in an RV: there is your fresh water tank, there's your gray water tank, and there's your black water tank. Orion when it was built, was not planning for this mission. The Starship didn't exist. They didn't know it was going to have to dock with it. It was planning to go to a space habitat somewhere, and when they docked, they would use their bathroom. Orion did not include a black tank. They were just going to vent any urine that happens all the way on their mission. We said, "You're going to come and dock with the Starship. You can't vent urine on our solar panels because they have to work when they're on the surface." They're like, "We don't have a tank. We don't have any other thing." They're like, "We're built, so you guys fix it." We're like, "We can't fix your venting problem. You want to shoot them the other way." This is stuff we have to work out because they're built and we're not. This is really interesting. After six months of figuring this out, one guy finally says in a meeting, fine, when we dock you can use our bathroom. Until then, you're just not going to use your bathroom while we're docking so that nothing can destroy our outside because we can't go clean it up. They finally agreed, but now they have to add a valve to their system. By the time our matrix organizations are not lined up, by the time you found the person who could design the valve, it took literally six months to solve this problem. This is one of the examples of why this is complicated. The hardest part of going to the Moon is talking to people and getting people to understand each other's languages. Just a few examples of how we manage complexity. This stuff is for real.

Why the Lunar South Pole?

I'm going to change gears just a little bit now and talk about why we want to go to the South Pole. If you remember the Apollo missions? Here's a picture of the Moon. There's Apollo 11. If you notice, it's right along the equator, and it was right after dawn. Again, at the equator, right after dawn. It had 14 days of sunlight covering the whole landing site. Of course, then 13 didn't happen so you wait a little bit longer. Then we'll get to 14. You can see they're all generally located in the equatorial region at the beginning of the full sunlight for a whole lunar day. In 2009, we sent the LRO mission and the LCROSS missions. Because the South Pole and part of the North Pole don't ever see the Sun to evaporate any water, they wanted to see if there was actually water in those permanently dark regions at the South Pole. What they did is they crashed part of their third stage into the South Pole. Then they flew the LCROSS probe through it and measured an amazing amount of water. Then they said, if there is water at the South Pole, because there's not water at the equator, we could use that water. We could use it for breathing and drinking and propellant. If there's really as much as we think there is there, we can mine it and then use it for propellant, and launching off the Moon in 1/6th G is a whole lot better than taking it from Earth. Now, this is where we get to the whole Artemis program sustainable missions. We go and we stay and we figure out how to mine these things. Then we build using the Gateway, as really that launching off point for future missions to Mars and beyond. That's really the reason we're looking at going to the South Pole for Artemis.

Managing Complexity 3: Landing Requirements

The South Pole is a little challenging. We're going to talk about managing complexity number three, the landing requirements. Here we go to the Moon, we're going to roll to the South Pole, and we're going to talk about what's different between landing at the equator, and landing at the South Pole. First thing you notice is that there's not a smooth terrain really anywhere at the South Pole. This will be the lighting in one month as it moves around one day, so one lunar day. It changes literally every hour, where the shadows are. Science has identified and everybody has identified some of the areas we'd be really interested in going to look. Those boxes are shown there. These are our top 13 regions right now for where we would like to go on the surface of the Moon. As part of the human landing team, I of course have a vested interest in making sure we find a safe place to land. Of course, on the Mars missions, especially for Mars InSight, we had this giant parking lot on Mars. We thought, there's got to be someplace on the Moon we can land that's generally safe and large. It turns out, that's really hard.

I'll walk through some of the requirements we have for landing this vehicle safely. The first one is, we want to land within 6 degrees [of latitude] of the pole, because that's where the water is. That's the circle we're trying to land in. Because we don't want this 15-story building to tip over, we have to land on slopes that are less than, let's say, 10 degrees, 10-degree slope, so pretty flat. This is color coded, so I'm going to take away the colors. Green is good. Green is pretty flat, and blue is steep. You look at it and you're like, "There's a lot of green, we could find some pretty good places to land in the green." Then you start going through some of the other requirements. The crew in those big spacesuits, they can't walk on any slopes greater than 20 degrees, because then it's kind of like the Princess Bride, "As You Wish!", and they just roll down. We're going to black out anything that has 20-degree slopes. Then we also have to be able to communicate direct with Earth, because there's no relay yet. There will be relays for Artemis IV and V, but we don't have a relay yet, so we have to communicate with Earth. Then we went ahead and we shadowed out anything that doesn't have more than 25% visibility with Earth, because we're not going to be able to land there. We have to be on the surface for six-and-a-half days, and it has to be lit the entire time. That's the other trick. We're starting to look through, it has to be lit the entire time, so we also need to block out all the places that don't have any sun. You're starting to see, our areas of green are disappearing, because they were the big flat areas at the bottom of the craters. In each of our boxes, the green areas are getting smaller. This is turning out to be a really big challenge.

Managing Complexity 4: Gateway Orbit

There were some additional ones with the environment that we're being asked to fly in for Artemis that they didn't have to deal with in Apollo. One is this Gateway Orbit that I'm just going to call it. Here's a little video of what it looks like. On the left, it's looking up at the pole of the Moon. The yellow lines represent basically our entry trajectory path. Because as I play this, you'll see how the Moon in its libration and it moves, and then the NRHO, the Gateway Orbit moves. Depending on what day you come in, you're going to fly across a different path on the ground. Now you have to make maps of all those different paths. If you miss a launch date, and you have to go to a next one, you can't go back to the same one. The other one is upper right, is just showing you the view from the Earth of the Moon, how it wobbles and how the South Pole just goes out of view for two weeks and comes back. For two weeks, you can't even see the Earth, so you can't go during those times. You're starting to see this Venn diagram of things that just aren't overlapping. It's starting to get really complicated. In the meantime, Orion will be in the big yellow circle that can see Earth all the time, but can't communicate directly with the Starship on the surface. That's just some statistics for this orbit. It's a six-and-a-half day. You can see it from the Earth. It's got a 1500-kilometer periapsis and then 70,000-kilometer apoapsis, which is the furthest point. Just because of the way the Earth and the Moon are phased, SLS and Orion can only get out there on 28 opportunities throughout the year, even though there are 58 total opportunities in this particular orbit. Again, a few more things we have to contend with.

Addressing Complexities

There are a couple other things. Like I mentioned, the ground tracks will be different each time, so we have to make more maps to load on board. I've been landing things on Mars for a few years. We had to land things in kilometers, miles. We had very large parking lots. Even with the Perseverance Lander that did do precision landing, it was able to do it on a parachute coming straight down very slowly so it could look around. It did, but it didn't have a preflight mark that it was trying to hit before it landed. It had a very big footprint before it got there. We are actually trying to land something, going from something the size of cities to trying to land something in a stadium, and do it on the first try. Our target, once we find a landing spot, to land within our requirement, is to land within 100 meters of it. Because we have passive TRN, they have to use cameras, and so our approach lighting has to be lit too so that we can compare to those [onboard] maps and then know exactly where we are. Because there's no GPS at the Moon. This is a very easy problem at Earth because we have GPS. There's no GPS at the Moon, so we have to basically learn where we're at by flying over it and taking pictures. Then, like I said, the lighting at the pole is different every opportunity. If we miss an opportunity one month, and you try to go back the next month, that spot may not be lit at all, it may be completely dark the next time. We have to have backup sites. If anyone tells you they know exactly where we're going at the South Pole, call them a liar, because we don't. It's really hard. We're still looking at this. We don't have a designated launch date. You saw how many things have to go right before we get to a launch date. Here we are. This is hard.

It is not unsolvable. These are totally solvable things, and we will get there. Then we will do Artemis IV, and Artemis V. It's going to be fantastic and wonderful. I will just show you a little bit, because remember we've added in Gateway now. With Artemis IV, and like I said, V is very similar, one will be Blue Origin, one will be SpaceX. This time Gateway has to get to orbit first, then Starship or Blue has to get to orbit. Then we will launch the SLS and Orion with the crew. Right now, our vehicles once they are in orbit around the Moon, and especially SpaceX, has to survive for 100 days. If we don't get everything else out there in 100 days, technically, that vehicle can't be used. There's just a lot of things that go into it. If you're thinking you have a really hard problem, this is a really hard problem. This is our generation's opportunity to go do great things at the Moon. This is not our grandparent's Apollo mission. This is ours. We're going to go and we want to bring all of you with us.


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Recorded at:

Oct 23, 2023