On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine unveiled two spacesuit prototypes that astronauts will wear for the 2024 Artemis mission to the moon. Barely a day later, members of the United States House Committee on Appropriations have grown frustrated over a mission budget that already goes sky-high.
“I remain extremely concerned about the additional cost to accelerate the mission to the moon by four years,” Jose Serrano, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science in the US Congress, told the NASA administrator.
“To date, NASA has not provided the committee with a full cost estimate despite repeated requests,” said Serrano.
Under pressure from the White House in May, NASA brought up the launch date to send humans to the moon by four years, to 2024, and told Congress it needed an additional $1.6bn in the $21bn budget for 2020 to prepare.
And that is just the beginning of steep increases in the price tag for a timeline that remains at the mercy of domestic political aims, and not just practical policy considerations.
While an official budget for the Artemis mission has yet to be revealed, Bridenstine in June estimated that NASA would need an additional $20bn to $30bn to meet the new 2024 deadline.
He told the subcommittee that the space agency was still working on a complete budget estimate for the Artemis mission, and would send it to the US Congress in February of next year.
‘Speed up the clock’
The original 2020 budget that NASA submitted in March had just over half of the funds earmarked for the “Exploration Campaign” – which included a lunar-surface landing slated for 2028 and work on a future mission to Mars.
So far, only the Senate has agreed to NASA’s additional ask, but the House has not. The US government – including NASA – is funded for the next five weeks by a continuing resolution, as the 2020 fiscal year started just over two weeks ago.
Serrano said, “Since NASA has already programmed the lunar landing mission for 2028, why does it suddenly need to speed up the clock by four years – time that is needed to carry out a successful programme from a science and safety perspective?”
“To a lot of members, the motivation appears to be just a political one, giving President [Donald] Trump a moon landing in a possible second term – should he be re-elected,” Serrano added.
“Not even NASA’s own leadership has enough confidence in the success and safety in this timeline,” he said.
The testimony given last month by Ken Bowersox, NASA’s acting associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, inspired scepticism in the US House Committee on Science, Space & Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
In answering a question about the odds of returning US astronauts to the moon, Bowersox said, “I wouldn’t bet my oldest child’s upcoming birthday present.”
Nevertheless, there is a race to get US boots on the moon’s surface to exploit lunar riches that experts believe include water, gold, platinum and valuable rare earth elements.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks during a visit to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility where engineers were preparing to add the final section to the core stage of the rocket that will power NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission, in New Orleans, Louisiana [File: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters]
Bridenstine told the Appropriations Subcommittee that the plan by China to send its citizens to the moon in 2025 – with Russia vowing to do the same by 2030 – is reason enough to move quickly.
“So we have political risk that we need to deal with. It’s political risk from programmes taking too long. It’s political risk from a geopolitical standpoint, making sure that our partners are with us and not with them. I think those are important reasons to move faster,” Bridenstine said.
“The history of NASA might be a little more slow than what is necessary,” he said, adding that “if we cannot land on the moon within five years, we need to change the organisation, and I believe that with all my heart”.
In 1969, seven years after US President John Kennedy made his 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech, Apollo 11 astronauts landed on and explored the lunar surface.