NASA has a big year ahead of it: Landing on Mars, further delivering on the promise of commercial flights to the International Space Station, tackling climate change, and much, much more.
But as former President Donald Trump left the White House on Jan. 20, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stepped down, after a little less than two years leading the agency. Now, NASA must wait for President Joe Biden's administration to nominate and Congress to approve a permanent agency chief.
Until then, NASA veteran Steve Jurczyk is at the helm, serving as acting administrator. Jurczyk joined the agency in 1988; he has worked as an electronics engineer and has led the Langley Research Center in Virginia and the Space Technology Mission Directorate, according to his NASA biography.
Space.com sat down with Jurczyk to talk through the agency's priorities and challenges as the Biden administration settles in, and what space fans can look forward to in 2021.
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Artemis and the moon
One of the outstanding questions of the Biden administration is what will happen to the Artemis program, NASA's push to land humans on the moon by 2024. The Artemis program was the Trump administration's showcase space initiative, speeding up a previous timeline that targeted a 2028 crewed lunar landing.
"The administration so far has signaled their support for our moon-to-Mars strategy," Jurczyk said. "Obviously, the core of our lunar strategy is Artemis."
But the 2024 deadline — which was ambitious even before the coronavirus pandemic forced NASA to slow work on many of its projects — may shift.
Right now, the big factor in the Artemis timeline is money, Jurczyk said, particularly money for the Human Landing System (HLS) program, in which NASA is contracting private companies to build the vehicle that will take astronauts from an outpost in lunar orbit to the surface and back. The Trump administration requested more than $3 billion in HLS funds from Congress for the year that began in October 2020, but the legislatures only granted around $850 million.
"We need to go look at what that means for the HLS schedule and evaluate whether we can make a landing in 24 or not," he said. "That work is in progress, and we'll have to take a few months to go through that analysis."
If the HLS math doesn't work, the human landing will have to wait.
It's the third mission of the Artemis program that will put astronauts down on the moon. The Artemis 1 mission, an uncrewed test flight around the moon, is currently scheduled for late this year, and Artemis 2, a crewed test flight around the moon dubbed Artemis 2, will lift off in 2023, if all goes according to plan.
Keeping those first two missions on track is NASA's priority while it evaluates the landing vehicle's budget, Jurczyk said. "We're really trying to hold the schedule for Artemis 1, and the schedule for Artemis 2 also."
But Artemis 1 hit a bump just days before the presidential transition. The last of eight so-called "green run" tests designed to ensure that the core of NASA's massive new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), works as it ought to ended early on Jan. 16. The rocket's four engines fired for just over a minute, instead of the just over eight minutes they were meant to burn to match the schedule of a launch.
"We learned a lot in the approximately one minute duration firing; however, we didn't get to the point where the system reached equilibrium, particularly from a pressure and thermal standpoint," Jurczyk said. After analyzing the data, NASA officials decided to play it safe and redo the test, currently scheduled for the week of Feb. 21, according to NASA.
"Getting that ground-test data to be able to inform the modeling and make sure we have everything — all the parameters and everything — set right prior to flight is really important," Jurczyk said. "That's why we wanted to repeat the green run, get to that longer duration, get that data: So we can have higher confidence in the hardware, but also underpin the modeling and make sure we got the modeling right."
To prepare for the redo, he said, engineers are checking sensor settings to ensure the second test won't end early as well.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Artemis 1 rocket and its Orion spacecraft are all at the launch site, NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, he said. "They are processing hardware and just anxious to get the second green run behind us and get that last piece of flight hardware to Kennedy and get the SLS vehicle integrated and Orion on it and do that first uncrewed test flight."
But the Artemis program is only half of NASA's human spaceflight strategy. The agency also faces a milestone on its International Space Station program, where NASA is transitioning to commercial launch providers nearly a decade after retiring its space shuttle fleet.
In 2014, NASA hired Boeing and SpaceX to develop crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory. SpaceX launched its first two crewed flights in the program in 2020; Boeing aims to launch its first this year.
But before that happens, Boeing needs to repeat an uncrewed test flight after software issues during the first attempt, in December 2019, prevented the capsule from reaching the space station. The new launch is scheduled for March 25.
"It absolutely looks like Boeing successfully implemented the corrective action plans that they put in place," Jurczyk said. "I think they're on track, but there is still a lot of work to do prior to starting the reviews leading up to the flight readiness review." That's bureaucratic work like revising hazard reports and reviewing verification documents, he said.
Meanwhile, SpaceX will launch its third crewed flight, Crew-2, in April; if that mission goes smoothly, it will mark a milestone toward regular commercial flights. NASA also hopes that it will facilitate a new ride-sharing agreement with Roscosmos, its Russian counterpart, in which NASA astronauts continue riding Russia's Soyuz capsules and Russian cosmonauts join the crews of commercial U.S. vehicles.
"The Russians have set a policy that they would like to see three successful crewed flights, so that's Demo-2, Crew-1 and Crew-2," Jurczyk said. (As its name suggests, Demo-2 was a demonstration mission; Crew-1 and Crew-2 are operational, contracted flights.)
"We believe that Crew-2 will be successful and we could see a cosmonaut as soon as Crew-3, but again we have to get that implementing agreement in place before that could happen," he added. (Crew-3 is scheduled to launch late this year.)
Science near and far
NASA's schedule for science missions is just as packed as its astronauts' launch calendars.
The agency's first big science milestone of the year comes in just two weeks; the Perseverance Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet on Feb. 18. And this perilous endeavor is one that Jurczyk knows well, since he helped lead a board reviewing the nearly identical procedure for the rover's predecessor, Curiosity, which landed in 2012.
"I probably know more than an acting NASA administrator would about the 'seven minutes of terror,'" he said, referring to the time a spacecraft takes to descend through the atmosphere of Mars.
"That whole sequence of events along the seven minutes will be in my head," Jurczyk said. "I'll be just replaying that whole sequence in my head and then just waiting for the touchdown signal to come back. It'll be a really exciting day and also somewhat of a nerve-wracking day."
Closer to home, NASA will play a leading role in one of the Biden administration's top priorities: confronting the climate crisis. That emphasis marks a stark difference from the Trump administration, which regularly downplayed the climate-change problem.
"I think we're going to be working with the administration to see what makes sense to accelerate," Jurczyk said, "to not only maintain continuity, but get those additional measurements, reduce uncertainties in modeling, and all to inform policy, right — to use the science research to inform policy moving forward."
With more than a dozen active Earth-science missions, NASA is a key source of data about our planet and its climate, particularly decades-long data series, he said. "The biggest contributor we make is the Earth-science missions and the observations that we make," Jurczyk said. And that role will continue: To match the administration's priority, NASA has created a new position, senior climate advisor, to coordinate climate-related activities across the agency.
NASA also has a handful of key science missions to launch this year.
Perhaps the most anticipated of those launches is the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, currently scheduled to blast off on Oct. 31. The flagship space telescope will help scientists study everything from the earliest days of the universe to the atmospheres of alien planets.
Most recently, in July 2020, NASA delayed the Webb launch by seven months, from March, due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but the mission is still on schedule for the late-October date, Jurczyk said.
A second October launch, of the Lucy mission that will study a half dozen asteroids, is also currently on schedule, he said. However, NASA is eyeing delays to the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, currently scheduled for a July launch. The spacecraft may need to rely on a back-up slot, but Jurczyk said it has a "reasonable shot at the second launch window."
NASA also this year has an opportunity to resolve a lingering issue surrounding a future mission, Europa Clipper, which is designed to launch in 2024 to explore the icy, ocean-harboring Jupiter moon. Until late December, Congress had mandated that NASA launch the mission on an SLS rocket.
Given the Artemis push to the moon, it wasn't clear that an SLS would be available for Europa Clipper, and further analysis showed a mismatch between the two systems. "That's obviously solvable technically, but it would have been a significant cost and schedule impact on Clipper," Jurczyk said.
But the budget Congress passed at the end of December softened that situation, opening the possibility of hiring a commercial rocket such as SpaceX's Falcon Heavy to launch Europa Clipper. Still, NASA needs to act quickly, making a final decision about the mission's vehicle by the end of 2021 or risk delaying launch, Jurczyk said, although the agency has a plan to do just that, he added.
In addition to its own launches, NASA will also be watching the first two missions of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. In 2019, the agency hired spaceflight companies Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines to deliver science and technology projects to the moon's surface on their privately designed robotic landers, in order to encourage commercial spaceflight programs.
Both companies planned to launch this summer, but may not do so until 2022. "I think they still have a chance to make this year, one or maybe both," Jurczyk said. "We're doing all that we can to support them in anything they need from NASA."
The COVID-19 crisis continues
The hard truth that NASA is facing this year across its work is that among its many scourges, the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the process of launching a spacecraft. Many NASA sites shut down for some portion of the spring, when the virus first gained traction in the U.S. Work that can't be completed remotely has resumed, but with measures in place to slow the disease's spread, like capping the number of people allowed in a space.
"Most of those missions in manufacturing, integration and tests are back on site working, but they're definitely not working at 100% pre-COVID efficiencies, so there are delays there, too," Jurczyk said. "There's just the inefficiency of having to take extra precautions, of having somebody test positive and having other people have to self-isolate for 14 days, etc."
On the day he took office, Biden published a substantial executive order targeted at containing the coronavirus pandemic, including requiring federal government employees and others on federal property to wear a mask.
"We've updated our protocols and precautions based on the guidance we've got from the administration," Jurczyk said. "We didn't need to do [a] really major update there, because we've really had a focus early on protecting our workforce."
NASA is also evaluating how to build on the success of remote work into the future, he said. "We're asking, when we're on the other side of COVID, in whatever world that is, how can we apply what we've learned during COVID for how we want to work in the future?"
For now, however, NASA's top priority remains safety, he said. "We still need to keep the mission moving forward but be vigilant."
All told, Jurczyk said that NASA is well poised to tackle the challenges 2021 will offer.
"So far, I don't see any major changes with the current administration that would cause us to have to make a major vector change there," he said. "I'm really looking forward to keeping that momentum moving forward this year, even given the challenges of COVID. It's going to be a really busy year, and a really exciting year."
Email Meghan Bartels at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.