NASA wants a big budget increase for its moon plans. Is Congress biting?

NASA wants a big budget increase for its moon plans. Is Congress biting?
Zoom in / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein says the competition is good for Artemis Moon.

The odds of NASA returning humans to the moon by 2024 Is a long time– Not zero, but very close.

Funding is perhaps the biggest short-term hurdle the space agency faces. Specifically, NASA is requesting an additional $ 3.2 billion in fiscal year 2021 to allow contractors to begin building one or more landers to transport astronauts to the surface of the moon from high lunar orbit. That’s a 12 percent increase in NASA’s total budget.

Fiscal year 2021 begins in a week, on October 1. The US Congress recently passed a “continuing resolution” that will keep the government funded until December 11th. By then, after the 2020 elections, it is hoped that the House and Senate can agree on a budget that funds priorities for the remainder of the fiscal year.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein said this week that funding the Artemis Moon program before the end of this year will be practical. “If we are able to do this before Christmas, we are still on our way to land on the moon in 2024,” he said in a phone call to reporters.

The real question is whether Congress, if it can agree on the fiscal year 2021 budget in this intense partisan era, will be inclined to support probe funding. This is a completely new program that will eventually require several billion dollars to pay off. In deliberations earlier this year, the US House of Representatives provided just $ 600 million, or less than a fifth of the budget that NASA said it needs for next year.

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So says the Senate

Wednesday provided the first opportunity to assess, at least publicly, whether the Senate will be more supportive of Artemis’ program and its aggressive goal of 2024.

In his opening statement, Jerry Moran, the Republican from Kansas who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the NASA budget, said nice words about Artemis. But he noted that NASA’s request for a larger budget came against the backdrop of a pandemic and the resulting financial crisis.

“Our world has changed dramatically since the initial budget release, and I look forward to discussing how NASA adapts to our new and unprecedented environment as we move forward with Artemis,” Moran said.

The senior Democrat on the committee appeared less supportive. New Hampshire’s Gene Shaheen noted that the proposed budget for NASA has once again reduced funding for STEM education and did not support the Romanian Nancy Grace Space Telescope. “We know that NASA needs to be more than just one shot,” this is what I directed to Bridenstein. Shaheen described the 12 percent budget increase as “generous.”

Later during the question-and-answer period, Moran asked Bridenstine if it would be better for NASA to quickly pick a single contractor to build the probe so the agency could focus its resources.

Bridenstein pulled back on this, citing the value of competition. Earlier this year, the space agency Three selected teams– by Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX – to clarify the probe’s proposals and tell NASA how much government funding they thought would be necessary to complete the projects by 2024. Using this information, NASA plans to “pick” from this group of three landing teams in February.

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One, two, or three?

There has been talk in the space community, in recent months, that one or more landing teams are paying for all of the funding in this February bottom pick by indicating that other teams cannot take on the technical challenge.

But Bridenstine appears committed to moving forward with two or more teams. He said, “I’m worried going down to one.” “When you get out of the competition, you end up with programs that inevitably falter and face cost overruns.” With at least two service providers competing, Bridenstein said, NASA would end up in a “virtuous cycle” as the teams invest their own money and pay as hard as they can.

For a modern model of success, cite the Commercial Crew Program, as SpaceX and Boeing competed to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX won that competition and did so as part of a “fixed price” contract that NASA awarded again in 2014. Bridenstein said the presence of two competitors had spurred the companies to keep moving despite the technical challenges.

As they study whether to fund Artemis, lawmakers will finally have some tough numbers to consider for the program. In the “Artemis plan” document NASA released Monday, and for the first time, it put specific dollar numbers on the projected cost of landing on the Moon by 2024: $ 27.9 billion. Of this amount, 16.1 billion dollars will go towards the cost of developing a “primary” human landing system. These are the funding requirements through to fiscal year 2025.

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