The White House is asking Congress for $1.6 billion more than the $21 billion it previously requested for NASA’s budget, to fund what’s now known as the Artemis program to put American astronauts on the moon by 2024.
“This initial investment, I want to be clear, is a down payment,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters today.
He and other NASA officials got on the line for a hastily called teleconference after President Donald Trump tweeted about the supplemental request:
Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars. I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2019
The money would go toward ramping up NASA’s previous plans for crewed missions to the moon starting in 2028. Bridenstine said that 2028 would stand as the target for “sustained operations” on the lunar surface, but that the $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2020 would help NASA to marshal its forces for a single touchdown near the moon’s south pole in 2024.
Bridenstine, a former Oklahoma GOP congressman, acknowledged that 2024 was chosen as the deadline in part so that the first human mission to the moon in more than 50 years would come while Trump was still in office. Such a plan would reduce the “political risk” of changes in NASA’s exploration agenda, as has happened in the past, he said.
Mark Sirangelo, a special assistant to Bridenstine focusing on lunar missions, emphasized that “we’re going to try to make this nonpartisan … from the start.”
Bridenstine added that he’s already talked about the plan with members of Congress. “I think there’s a lot of excitement on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
To sweeten the deal, Bridenstine announced a catchy name for the program at the very end of the teleconference. He noted that in Greek mythology, Apollo had a twin sister named Artemis, who served as the goddess of the moon.
“Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified,” Bridenstine said. “I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and the first woman to the moon. I have a daughter who is 11 years old, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role that the next women to go to the moon see themselves in today.”
NASA’s revised plan scales down its previous plan for a platform in lunar orbit, known as the Gateway, so that it focuses more tightly on the needs for a single mission putting two astronauts on the surface in 2024. The redesigned Gateway will consist of a power and propulsion element, or PPE, and a mini-habitat also known as a utilization module.
To get down to the lunar surface and back, NASA will need a transfer module, a descent module for landing, and an ascent module to come back up from the surface. Bridenstine said the effort will also require NASA’s heavy-lift rocket, known as the Space Launch System, and the Orion deep-space crew capsule with its European-built service module.
Of all those components, only the Orion has flown in space, during an uncrewed test flight in 2014. The SLS is due for its first uncrewed test flight in 2020, with a crewed round-the-moon flight in 2023 and the climactic Artemis launch in 2024.
Tonight NASA provided a budgetary breakdown for its 2020 supplemental request:
- Human lunar landing system: $1 billion to support the development of a commercial lunar landing system capable of carrying astronauts. That expense will be partially offset by slimming down the Gateway platform, saving $321 million, NASA said.
- SLS and Orion: $651 million to accelerate development.
- Exploration technology: $132 million to speed the development of technologies such as solar electric propulsion and conversion of lunar polar ice to water.
- Lunar science: $90 million to enable increased robotic exploration of the moon’s polar regions in advance of a human mission.
Bridenstine said NASA was still working on estimates for what it would need beyond the 2020 budget to hit the 2024 deadline, and to prepare the way for more sustained operations at the moon by 2028. He emphasized that one of the primary goals for lunar operations was to blaze a trail for voyages to Mars.
“We need to learn how to live and work on another world,” Bridenstine said. “The moon is a three-day journey home, so if something goes wrong, we know we can make it home. We proved that with Apollo 13. … When we go to Mars, we have to be willing and able to live and work on another world for a couple of years. That’s why the moon is so valuable. It’s so important to use it as a proving ground so we can eventually take our missions to Mars.”
NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, said the architecture for the Artemis program would be open to commercial and international partners. “You’ll see a series of flights in that period between 2024 and ’28,” he said.
Just a few days after Jeff Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, unveiled its design for a lunar lander potentially capable of carrying humans, Bridenstine emphasized that commercial moon ventures would be welcome.
“They can build a lander that just integrates with the Gateway, robots, rovers, landers,” he said. “We want this to be open architecture. … I’m talking about the way we do docking, the way we do data, the way we do avionics, the way we do life support. All of these pieces would be interoperable, published on the internet, for anybody who wanted to participate in our sustainable return to the moon.”
Update for 10:45 p.m. PT May 13: The Associated Press confirms that the $1.6 billion for the Artemis program would be taken from a $9 billion surplus in the Pell Grant program for college education aid. There are other shifts in the supplemental budget request as well, including renewed support for the Special Olympics.
AP quoted an administration official as saying that the reallocation of Pell Grant money wouldn’t have an impact on the low-income students currently receiving the grants. However, critics of such reallocations say the surplus should be used instead to ensure the long-term stability of the program or increase the size of the grants.
The issue is sure to spark debate when Congress takes up the request.