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Moon sample studied after decades in storage

Lunar sample processors
Apollo sample processors Andrea Mosie, Charis Krysher and Juliane Gross open lunar sample 73002 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. (NASA Photo / James Blair)

For the first time in more than 40 years, NASA has opened up a pristine sample of moon dirt and rocks that was collected during the Apollo missions.

Scientists hope that a close analysis of the material from a 2-foot-long, nearly 2-inch-wide core sample will help astronauts get ready for a new series of Artemis moon missions in the 2020s.

When Apollo’s moonwalkers collected samples of lunar soil and rock, also known as regolith, some of those samples were tucked away at NASA’s Johnson Space Center with the expectation that analytical tools would improve over the course of the decades that followed. The idea was to keep the samples fresh until the proper time.

NASA says that proper time is now.

The first of the stored lunar samples, known as 73002, was pushed out of its container at Johnson Space Center’s Lunar Curation Laboratory on Nov. 5.

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Space agencies focus on their Gateway roles

Jim Bridenstine at IAC
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is surrounded by top officials from other space agencies as he talks about what lies ahead for NASA and its partners on the final frontier. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Not everyone has signed on the dotted line to join NASA’s plan to start sending astronauts to the moon in 2024 via an outpost in lunar orbit known as the Gateway, but the world’s leading space agencies are already staking out their roles.

Russia, for example, plans to work on its own space transportation system that would parallel NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. Europe and Japan are planning to provide logistical support for space operations. And Canada will be supplying the Gateway’s robotic arm.

Space agency officials laid out the status of their plans for the final frontier today during a panel discussion and follow-up news briefing at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington.

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NASA unveils red, white and blue spacesuit for moon

NASA spacesuits
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine looks on as spacesuit engineer Kristine Davis models a red-white-and-blue prototype for NASA’s new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit; and Dustin Gohmert, project manager for Orion Crew Survival Systems, gives a wave in the Orion Crew Survival System suit. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

The fashion statement for NASA’s future moonwalkers goes beyond basic white to add some flag-worthy touches of red and blue.

But the color scheme for the “pumpkin suits” that astronauts wear during launches and landings is relatively unchanged, due to practical considerations. It turns out that the old orange, with a few blue accents added, is the new orange.

Both suit designs had their debut today at NASA Headquarters as part of the buildup to the Artemis moon program, which is due to put the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface by as early as 2024.

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NASA issues fast-track plan for lunar landers

Lunar lander takeoff
An artist’s conception shows a lunar lander’s ascent module blasting off from the moon. (NASA Illustration)

After two preliminary rounds, NASA today published its final call for industry proposals to have the first two landers capable of putting astronauts on the moon ready for 2024 and 2025.

NASA’s broad agency announcement, known as NextSTEP-2 Appendix H, makes clear that two different companies would be chosen to build human-capable landers. One of them would be used for the Artemis 3 mission, which aims to send two astronauts to and from the lunar surface in 2024. The other would be used for a demonstration mission in 2025.

Those two missions would set the stage for putting an upgraded lander on the moon in 2026 to demonstrate a “sustainable” approach to lunar exploration. That follow-up demonstration mission would serve as a “precursor to procuring lunar landing services as commercial services beginning in 2028,” NASA said.

And here’s the kicker: The proposals for the first two landers are due in a month.

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Space Council highlights moon, Mars … and nukes

Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the sixth meeting of the National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The space shuttle Discovery towers over him. (NASA Photo / Aubrey Gemignani)

The latest meeting of the National Space Council provided a forum to build support for NASA’s twin-focus plan to send astronauts to the Moon in preparation for trips to Mars – and for the idea of using nuclear-powered rockets to get there.

In contrast to some of the council’s past meetings, today’s session at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia produced no Space Policy Directives with capital letters. Instead, administration officials – led by Vice President Mike Pence – summarily approved a set of recommendations aimed at fostering cooperation with commercial ventures and international partners on NASA’s moon-to-Mars initiative.

Pence said the recommendations give NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine a 60-day timeline for “designation of an office and submission of a plan for sustainable lunar surface exploration and the development of crewed missions to Mars.”

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NASA’s moon lander plan stirs up a fuss

Alabama ceremony
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is dwarfed by a 149-foot-tall liquid hydrogen structural test article for the heavy-lift Space Launch System as he announces Marshall Space Flight Center’s leadership role in developing the human landing system for Artemis moon missions. (NASA Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced today that Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama will take the lead role in developing the vehicles for landing astronauts on the moon – which could be good news for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, but definitely came as bad news for Texas lawmakers.

To be fair, Texas is getting a piece of the action in NASA’s Artemis moon program as well: NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston will continue to take the lead role in human spaceflight – and in the development of the ascent module for the human landing system.

The latest step in NASA’s Artemis plan for sending astronauts to the moon within five years came during a ceremony at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., staged in front of a 149-foot-tall structural test model for NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket.

Bridenstine said the moon lander program would bring 140 jobs to Marshall and 87 jobs to Johnson, with another 136 distributed among other NASA centers. “We focus on a ‘One NASA’ integrated approach that uses the technical capabilities of many centers,” he said.

Despite Bridenstine’s reassurances, Texan members of Congress said they were disappointed by the decision, and complained that NASA officials hadn’t told them about Alabama’s elevated role until reports started appearing in news outlets such as Ars Technica.

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Northrop Grumman to build moon-orbiting habitat

Cygnus-derived habitation module
An artist’s conception shows Northrop Grumman’s habitation module, which is based on the design of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft. (Northrop Grumman Illustration)

NASA says it’s choosing Northrop Grumman to build the habitation module for its future moon-orbiting Gateway outpost, because it’s the only company that can do the job in time for a 2024 lunar landing.

In a procurement document released last week, the space agency said the other companies that were competing to build the Minimal Habitation Module as part of NASA’s NextSTEP program — Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NanoRacks and Sierra Nevada Corp. — couldn’t have their hardware ready in time to meet the deadline set by the Trump administration.

“NGIS [Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, formerly Orbital ATK] was the only NextSTEP-2 contractor with a module design and the production and tooling resources capable of meeting the 2024 deadline,” NASA said.

For that reason, NASA is going with a sole-source process to award the contract for the habitation module, short-circuiting the full and open NextSTEP-2 Appendix A competition. As long as Northrop Grumman submits an acceptable proposal with a price tag that’s “fair and reasonable,” NASA will give its go-ahead.

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Apollo anniversary brings tributes and questions

A Saturn V rocket is projected on the Washington Monument during a 17-minute multimedia presentation celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

Fifty years after Apollo 11’s moonwalkers took one giant leap for humanity, luminaries including President Donald Trump and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest individual — paid tribute to the achievement and looked forward to the future of spaceflight.

Today’s observances were about more than memories: There were also fresh questions about where that future might lead — plus a Russian rocket launch that resonated with references to the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1960s.

The marquee observance on today’s anniversary of the landing on July 20, 1969, came at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where Vice President Mike Pence invoked the legacy of the Apollo program and hailed NASA’s initiative to send astronauts to the moon once again by 2024.

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Target for SLS rocket’s first launch shifts to 2021

SLS tank test
NASA engineers load a test article for the SLS liquid-oxygen tank into its test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (NASA Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told lawmakers today that the first launch of the heavy-lift Space Launch System was “definitely achievable by 2021,” seemingly signaling a shift in the plan for a 2020 maiden launch.

Bridenstine’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation came just a day after he wrote in a blog post that NASA was “staying on schedule for flying the Artemis 1 mission with our Orion spacecraft on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket next year, and for sending the first crewed mission, Artemis 2, to the lunar vicinity by 2022.”

Artemis 1, previously known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, would launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on a test flight looping around the moon. Artemis 2 would trace a similar course with a crew on board, in preparation for sending two astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2024 via a yet-to-be-built Gateway space outpost in lunar orbit..

Today, Bridenstine said Artemis 2 was scheduled for the 2022-2023 time frame. He stuck with the 2024 date for the lunar landing.

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Watchdogs worry over NASA super-rocket

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)

The federal government’s watchdog agency says getting NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket off the ground is likely to take longer and cost more than the space agency says it will.

Any issues that crop up in the months ahead could push the first uncrewed SLS launch, known as Artemis 1, from its planned mid-2020 timetable to mid-2021, the Government Accountability Office said in a study issued today.

What’s more, the GAO says NASA has been shifting costs forward to make it look as if expenses for the first launch have grown by $1 billion, when the actual adjusted cost growth is $1.8 billion.

Schedule and cost issues for SLS are particularly problematic because the rocket has been selected to carry NASA astronauts to the moon by 2024.

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