In a series of interviews last week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations announced that the first two elements of the Gateway—the Power and Propulsion Element and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost—will be integrated on the ground and launched together on a Falcon Heavy with its extended fairing in 2023. From Stephen Clark’s interview over at Spaceflight Now:
“What we had was a Power and Propulsion Element that had its own launch on a Falcon Heavy, and we had a HALO with its own launch on a Falcon Heavy, and they were then going to have to have independent propulsion systems, and independent docking systems, and independent power and guidance and control systems,” Loverro said. “They were both going to have to independently get their way to the moon and then (autonomously) dock with each other.
The decision was primarily communicated as a way to eliminate technical risk and complexity, but it certainly plays well on the political and budgetary side of things, too. The convergence of political factors this year are a nightmare for NASA’s budget outlook, not to mention the federal budget generally.
It’s an extremely politically-charged presidential election year, with an ongoing pandemic that is unlikely to be over anytime soon, with major swings possible for NASA policy via either a presidential changeover, or a congressional reshuffling.
It’s pretty likely no budget will be passed until after the election, with continuing resolutions holding us over well into 2021. We’ll see what the election brings, but either way, NASA is cutting costs and risks wherever they can to free up as much money possible for the human landers, since it’s unlikely they’ll be the beneficiaries of a budget boost in the future.