FederalIssuesHouston May Have a Problem: NASA to Let Alabama Lead on Moon Landing System Instead of Texas

With new plans to send astronauts back to the moon, NASA announced that its center in Huntsville, Alabama will lead a lunar landing program instead of Houston.
August 16, 2019
William Shatner rocketed to his famed acting career with the lead role of Captain Kirk in the 1960s Star Trek television series.

Earlier this year, he starred in another production, with his iconic voice proclaiming, “We’re going to the moon, to stay, by 2024.” Only this time, Shatner wasn’t acting in a new science fiction flick. He was making an announcement from NASA.

The new lunar program is called the Artemis Program, named after the goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. After the Artemis Program sends more astronauts to the moon by 2024, NASA hopes to use the moon as a stepping-stone for future missions to Mars.

On Friday, August 16, Jim Bridenstine, the Administrator of NASA, made an announcement regarding the lunar lander for the Artemis Program. At the press conference in Huntsville, he told reporters that the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, rather than the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, would lead the development of the human landing system for the lander.

Bridenstine noted that Texas would be leading a project of its own as part of the Artemis Program. “It’s also true that the Johnson Space Center is leading the Gateway Program,” he stated. “The Gateway Program is that space station in orbit around the moon that is, think of it as a command module in orbit for fifteen years—a reusable command module. That is a big program.”

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At the announcement, Bridenstine was joined by U.S. Representatives Mo Brooks (R-AL), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and Scott DesJarlais (R-TN).

Both Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, as well as Representative Brian Babin (R-TX-36),  were all invited to the announcement, but none attended.

A report was released on Thursday regarding Bridenstine’s planned announcement. The article noted the long-standing space rivalry between Texas and Alabama and argued that Texas had lost some congressional influence in human spaceflight. 

“For example,” it stated, “at the outset of the commercial crew program to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, overall management for that office went to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center rather than the self-styled home of human spaceflight in Houston.”

Bridenstine blasted back at the claims, tweeting, “The Johnson Space Center has lost NO ground in its Congressional representation. JSC is managing ISS, Gateway, Orion, Lunar Spacesuits, Mission Control, CLPS & much more.”

After the report was published, several in the Texas congressional delegation quickly responded with a letter asking Bridenstine to “hold off on any formal announcements until we receive a briefing on this matter that includes the timeline, projected cost, and rationale for this decision.”

The letter was sent from the office of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and cosigned by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Babin. They contended that while the center in Alabama was the leader in rocketry, the JSC in Texas is “ground zero for human space exploration.”

Bridenstine said that it was the propulsion expertise at Marshall that led to the decision.

“[The] lander going down from the gateway to the moon and back to the gateway [. . .] requires three elements: a transfer module to get from the gateway to low lunar orbit, a lander to go down to the surface of the moon, and then an ascent module to get back to the gateway,” said the NASA administrator. “Two of those elements are highly focused on propulsion. And I would argue that when it comes to propulsion, there is no place in the world that is more experienced and better than the Marshall Space Center.”

Bridenstine also noted that he understood some of the Texans’ concerns, but noted that the program will create 363 total jobs. While 140 would be in Huntsville, another 87 would be at the JSC.

“NASA has a very different look today than it had in the 1960s,” Bridenstine continued. “In the 1960s, if a center led a mission, that center led the mission. Well, today we have telecommunications and the ability to work remotely and networks where we can share data and information.”

The other speakers at the announcement, including the representatives from Alabama, stressed that while Alabama would be leading the project, the Artemis Program will require cooperation among all of the NASA centers.

However, the Texas congressmen highlighted another point as well. “The integration of development responsibilities into one center—ideally the center with the longest history and deepest institutional knowledge of human space exploration—would be the most cost-efficient, streamlined, and effective approach, and is the approach that NASA should pursue,” they said in their letter.

“‘Houston’ was one of the first words ever uttered on the Moon,” they added, “and Houston, the city that last sent man to the Moon, should be where the lander that will once again send Americans to the lunar surface is developed.”

The signers of the letter had sent another letter to Bridenstine last year, asking the NASA Administrator to base the proposed lunar landing program in Houston.

In June, Bridenstine told CNN that the entire price-tag of the Artemis Program would cost an astronomical $20-30 billion. He said that NASA had requested a “small downpayment” of $1.6 billion, but Congress has not approved it yet.

Rep. Aderholt, who is the ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, said at the announcement, “We know that we have a vision. We know where we’re going and where we want to be by 2024. So the request that NASA has put in through the administrator for 1.6 billion dollars, we’ll make that happen.”


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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.