An influential member of Congress has expressed doubt over NASA’s ambitious plans to put humans on the Moon by 2024, arguing that 2028 might be a safer time frame for the next lunar landing. The concern seemingly spells trouble for NASA’s Artemis program, which may now be in jeopardy of not receiving the funding it needs from lawmakers.
In a hearing on Wednesday, Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), chairman of the House subcommittee that appropriates funds for NASA, cited the potential astronomical cost of the space agency’s lunar program. He claimed that some experts have estimated that it could cost more than $25 billion over the next five years, and that money will be hard to justify, especially since many other government programs are in need of funds.
He also did not see the reason for accelerating the deadline for the landing, which NASA had originally slated for 2028. “Another concern that I have is a lack of a serious justification for such a cost since NASA has already programmed the lunar landing mission for 2028,” Serrano said in the hearing. “Why does it suddenly need to speed up the clock by four years — time that is needed to carry out a successful program from a science and safety perspective? To a lot of members, the motivation appears to be just a political one, giving President Trump a Moon landing in a possible second term, should he be reelected.”
Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA in March to put humans back on the Moon within the next five years “by any means necessary.” As a result, NASA revamped its human lunar exploration plans to fit the more difficult deadline, and it named the initiative Artemis. Through the program, the space agency aims to put the first woman on the lunar surface to meet the 2024 deadline.
To jump-start the Artemis program, the Trump administration asked for an extra $1.6 billion for NASA, on top of the $21 billion that it already requested for 2020. This extra money is meant to help accelerate the production of new lunar landers that can take humans to and from the surface of the Moon as well as components of a new space station that NASA wants to build in the vicinity of the Moon. Meeting the 2024 deadline is going to be a challenge for NASA no matter what, but NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has been very clear that without this funding, such a feat would be close to impossible.
Ultimately, it’s up to Congress to decide how much NASA gets for next year and how the agency gets to spend that money. So far, appropriators have not matched the administration’s request for Artemis funding. Senate appropriators recently passed a funding bill that would give NASA $22.75 billion for 2020, but the legislation does not provide the requested levels of funding for human lunar exploration that the administration wanted. For instance, it would give NASA around $700 million for lunar lander development, when the administration asked for $1 billion. A House appropriations bill, passed this summer, mostly ignores the $1.6 billion amendment altogether.
Congress is still finalizing its spending bill for next year, but lawmakers will take into consideration the bills passed by appropriations subcommittees in both the House and the Senate. As of now, the federal government is being funded by a continuing resolution that will keep everything running until November 21st. If Serrano has enough sway, he could prove to be a barrier to funding moving forward in the future. Not all of the members of the subcommittee held Serrano’s views, though. Ranking Member Robert Aderholt (R-AL) expressed his support for the accelerated timeline during the hearing.
But Serrano is the chairman, and he has expressed skepticism over the 2024 target date before. Now, it’s clear that he still isn’t on board. “The eyes are upon us. We cannot afford to fail. Therefore, I believe it is better to use the original NASA schedule of 2028 in order to have a successful, safe, and cost-effective mission,” he said.
Bridenstine, who was a witness at the hearing, made his familiar argument that the reason to go faster is that a new administration might come in and rework NASA’s entire agenda. “So we have political risks that we need to deal with,” Bridenstine said. “It’s political risk from programs 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.”
Ultimately, Serrano said he wants a full budget estimate for the Artemis program, something Bridenstine and the Trump administration won’t provide until the next presidential budget request in 2020. He also expressed worry over the possibility of programs within and outside NASA getting cut to fund Artemis. As Serrano grilled Bridenstine on these issues, reports started to surface that the chairman had effectively killed the Artemis mission, something he took offense to.
“All these folks are already writing on Twitter, newspaper clippings already went out while we’re sitting here saying that I just killed the mission,” he said. “I don’t have that kind of power. I didn’t kill the mission. I just had some questions that I know you know need to be answered before we move forward, or not.”