WASHINGTON (House Science Committee PR) – In late March, Vice President Mike Pence announced a new presidential directive to NASA to return humans to the surface of the moon by 2024, accelerating the mission timeline by 4 years. In order to fund the acceleration of this mission, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released an amendment to the President’s FY 2020 NASA budget proposal requesting that Congress appropriate an additional $1.6 billion for the first year of this program, now named Artemis.
Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Chair Kendra Horn (D-OK) of the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics issued the following statements.
“While I am a supporter of challenging human space exploration endeavors that can take us to the Moon and eventually to Mars, based on the limited information provided to Congress it is impossible to judge the merits of the President’s budget amendment,” said Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.
“We don’t know how much money will be required in total to meet the arbitrary 2024 Moon landing deadline or how that money will be spent. We don’t know how much additional money will subsequently be required to turn the crash program to get astronauts to the Moon by 2024 into a sustainable exploration program that will lead to Mars. And we don’t know what NASA’s technical plan for its lunar program is.
“What we do know is that the President is proposing to further cut a beneficial needs-based grants program that provides a lifeline to low-income students, namely the Pell Grants program, in order to pay for the first year of this initiative—something that I cannot support. We know that over 40 percent of the $1.6 billion increase is simply to restore Exploration systems funding that was cut by the White House in NASA’s original FY 2020 budget request.
“We also now know that the budget amendment would give the NASA Administrator authority to transfer funds from NASA’s Science, Aeronautics, and Technology programs to the Moon program from this point forward simply based on the Administrator’s determination that those funds are needed ‘in support of establishment of a United States strategic presence on the Moon’—an open-ended license to raid NASA’s other important mission areas whenever NASA’s Moon program needs money.
“And most importantly, we know that a Moon program budget plan that is dependent on cancelling important NASA Science and Education programs, as this one has been, is not going to be sustainable. That said, I am going to reserve judgment on the overall Moon landing plan until Congress is provided with more concrete information on the proposed lunar initiative.”
“We’re glad to see the increase because we know that a robust human space exploration program is important,” said Chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Rep. Kendra Horn. “At the same time, there are still many unanswered questions. How much will the accelerated timeline cost in total? Where exactly is that money coming from? When will we see the detailed plan?
“We also need to ensure that NASA’s exploration program isn’t funded at the expense of Pell Grants because getting Americans back to the Moon and on to Mars is going to take more scientists and engineers, not fewer. We can’t sacrifice the pathway that many middle- and low-income families use to get their kids to college.”
Editor’s Note: Three key things to note here that are non-starters:
- raiding the Pell grant surplus for $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2020;
- asking Congress to do so without any idea of what the overall program will cost or how it will be accomplished; and,
- giving Administrator Jim Bridenstine the right to raid other programs to support the moon landing.
On this last point, Congress does give NASA authority to transfer small amounts of money between different accounts in its annual funding bills. But, that amount is strictly limited.
It’s not exactly clear why anyone in the Trump Administration would think that the House would go along with raiding the Pell grants, even if the program does have a surplus. It makes me wonder if this was deliberate to blame Democrats for thwarting a key presidential priority. Or perhaps it is merely a bargaining chip.
The way the supplemental request was announced in a tweet by the Twitter-happy president apparently surprised both Congress and the NASA leadership. The latter was forced to call a media telecon on Monday at 7 p.m. EDT.