Bridenstine: NASA Needs Funding Surge to Land on Moon by 2024

Astronauts on a future lunar walk. (Credit: NASA)

SpaceNews reports that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine didn’t do much on Wednesday to clear up what the Trump Administration’s plan to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 is going to cost in testimony before the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Bridenstine declined to offer a dollar figure, saying that the agency submitted a “pretty good” proposal to the Office of Management and Budget, which is performing its own review along with the staff of the National Space Council. The goal, he said, is to “come up with a unified administration position” on how much additional funding NASA will request.

He downplayed reports, though, that claimed NASA would seek an additional $8 billion a year for five years. “I will tell you that is not accurate,” he said. “It is nowhere close to that amount. But I don’t want to throw out a number until we have gone through the process with OMB and the National Space Council.”

Speculation has focused on a smaller, but still significant, increase of about $3 billion to $5 billion a year. That revised budget proposal is expected to be delivered to Congress in the near future, but Bridenstine didn’t give a specific date he thought it would be ready.

Bridenstine emphasized in his testimony that NASA could land humans on the moon in 2024 with existing technology. “We are very capable of achieving that end state,” he said of the lunar landing goal. “Technologically, everything we need to accomplish that is there.”

A key area for what Bridenstine called a funding “surge” will be on a landing system to get the astronauts to and from the moon. NASA recently published a pre-soliticitation notice for lunar landers.

The $8 billion per year figure would be on top of NASA’s current $21.5 billion budget for FY 2019. My best guess is that the $8 billion number was for a plan that NASA rejected.

It is highly improbable that Congress would approve a 37.2 percent increase in the space agency’s budget in order to move up the moon landing from four years from its original 2028 target date. So, NASA is looking at leaner, cheaper alternatives.

Although the space agency hasn’t released a budget or schedule yet, elements of the lunar plan are beginning to come into focus.

The human-tended Lunar Gateway, which would orbit the moon as a base for exploration, would be only partially completed during the next five years. The gateway would likely consist of a power and propulsion element, a small habitation module, and a docking unit.

Additional modules and capabilities for the gateway would be deferred until after the moon landing. Other lunar focused on making lunar exploration sustainable would likewise be delayed.

SpaceNews reports that Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, laid out additional details of the plan during a joint meeting of the Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board on Tuesday.

The approach, as he described, would require three launches of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft, starting with the uncrewed Exploration Mission (EM) 1 mission already in development. That mission has suffered delays because of problems assembling the core stage of the rocket, specifically its engine section, and Gerstenmaier said the agency was taking steps, such as horizontal integration of the core stage elements, to recover some schedule.

Gerstenmaier said NASA was still considering whether to carry out the “green run” static-fire test of the SLS core stage at the Stennis Space Center, or if there are ways of “expediting” that test. The agency’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, at its latest meeting April 25, recommended NASA carry out the test, and Gerstenmaier noted that the alternative of doing a brief static fire at the Kennedy Space Center — no more than 10 seconds, versus the eight-minute green run test — wouldn’t test everything they would like.

He said that, in a best-case scenario, EM-1 would launch in late 2020, “but probably more than likely some time in 2021.” A crewed test flight, EM-2, would follow in 2022, a date he said likely would not be affected by the EM-1 schedule. EM-3 would then carry out the initial lunar landing mission.

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Gerstenmaier said that the approach for a human lunar landing in 2024 is minimalistic. “I would say, for the initial 2024 landing, it’s going to be pretty Spartan,” he said when asked about the development of spacesuits for lunar excursions. “We’re looking at what the minimum is we need for suits to go out and do things. We’re going to keep that as small and as lean as we can.”

There are some risks to moving up the lunar landing. The 2024 date seems to have been selected to give President Donald Trump a legacy and Vice President Mike Pence something to run on in his bid for the presidency if they are re-elected to second terms next year.

Lacking a compelling set of other reasons to do so, will Congress go along with the new plan? There will be a lot of skepticism in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by the rival Democrats.

The Administration has put forth China as a reason to move up the landing. Is the recent statement by a Chinese space official that the nation is aiming to establish a lunar base at the south pole in about 10 years sufficient to garner support?

The plan pushes much of the cost of making the program sustainable until after 2025. Will there be the political will and public support to continue paying the price for that? Or will interest in the program fade as it did after the Apollo 11 moon landing?

It will be very interesting to see what the Administration proposes and how much Congressional and public support it gains.