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Senate Appropriations Committee Sticks a Fork in NASA’s 2024 Moon Landing Plan

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
November 10, 2020
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Artemis Gateway (Credit: Thales Alenia Space/Briot)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It looks as if the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon in 2024 is expiring at about the same time as the administration itself. The fatal blow is being struck by Congress, not the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has released a fiscal year 2021 funding bill that includes $1 billion for NASA to Human Landing System (HLS) that will take astronauts to and from the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program. The amount is far short of the $3.2 billion that NASA has said is needed for HLS to keep the 2024 landing on schedule.

The Senate funding is an increase over the $628.2 million for HLS included in a spending bill passed by the House of Representatives. Differences between the House and Senate bills will be worked out in conference committee.

The Senate bill boosts NASA’s overall budget by $866 million to $23.5 billion, while the House measure keeps the space agency’s spending at a flat $22.6 billion. The Trump Administration had requested a $2.6 billion increase to $25.2 billion.

In a committee report that accompanies the spending bill, the Appropriations Committee noted uncertainty about the ultimate cost of HLS and its impact on the rest of NASA’s budget for not approval the full amount requested.

NASA has estimated HLS will cost $16 billion of the $28 billion in additional spending required to land astronauts during the Artemis III mission in 2024. Congress has already appropriated $35 billion for programs related to crewed exploration of the moon and Mars.

However, HLS remains under study and has not be defined. Earlier this year, NASA awarded study contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX with the goal of awarding at least one development contract in 2021.

“This uncertainty makes it difficult to analyze the future impacts that funding the accelerated Moon mission will have on NASA’s other important missions, not to mention the programs, projects, and activities funded elsewhere in the bill,” the report added. “In order to facilitate forward movement in the Artemis program, the Committee
has provided funds to allow for NASA to advance its human exploration program, including the development of landers, and awaits further definition of the program and a refined cost estimate.”

NASA had been planning to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2028. The Trump Administration announced it was moving up the deadline by four years in March 2019.

Congress’ refusal to fully fund HLS provides Biden with flexibility in resetting NASA’s budget and goals. The president-elect said little about space policy during the presidential campaign. Many observers believe the new administration will push back the target date for a return to the moon while boosting NASA’s Earth Science budget to better address climate change.

The first Artemis rocket stage is guided toward NASA’s Pegasus barge Jan. 8 ahead of its forthcoming journey to NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. (Credits: NASA)

The Senate has sought to tie Biden’s options in one area. The bill requires that NASA use the Space Launch System (SLS) to send NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter ice-covered moon.

The requirement has been a source of tension between Congress, NASA and the Trump Administration. Critics have estimated the space agency could save $1 billion to $1.5 billion by launching Europa Clipper on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy.

There is also uncertainty over whether a SLS booster would be available in time for the planned launch of the Europa Clipper orbiter in 2024. The SLS program is running years behind schedule, and the Trump Administration prioritized using the boosters for the Artemis lunar program.

The House spending bill gives NASA more flexibility on launcher selection, saying the space agency should use SLS for Europa Clipper if a booster is available.

NASA officials postponed a critical design review for the Europa Clipper orbiter until the end of the year due to uncertainty over the launch vehicle.

Earlier this year, NASA officials said they had discovered a number of incompatibilities between SLS and Europa Clipper that would have to be resolved before the spacecraft could be launched on the rocket.

SLS has not yet flown; its maiden flight is scheduled for late 2021. Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy are proven boosters whose performance is much better understood.

5 responses to “Senate Appropriations Committee Sticks a Fork in NASA’s 2024 Moon Landing Plan”

  1. gunsandrockets says:

    Whelp, that settles it then. The murder of Project Artemis is bi-partisan.

    The piddling total amount for the lunar lander is only equal to the extra cash the U.S. Senate mandated that NASA spend on SLS!

    The Congress has spoken. NASA is for pork, not for actually going anywhere.

    Boeing is now jumping for joy!

    The Boeing Space Station will be kept flying forever. The Boeing CST-100 Starliner will creak along to carry crew to ISS. The Boeing SLS rocket-to-nowhere will keep growing and growing, through block 1b into block 2. An endless revenue stream of billions of dollars for Boeing.

    Meanwhile SpaceX and possibly Blue Origin will leave the rotting corruption of NASA behind, as they blaze a path into the future.

  2. Kenneth_Brown says:

    Spending more money on Earth observation will have zero impact on climate change. The cause is painfully obvious and finding solutions to green house gas emissions from industry and transportation is what’s needed. Not more satellites. Getting back to the moon and doing research may open the door on understanding viruses, health and materials.

    The other benefit of manned missions is the tremendous amount of excitement it creates. It gets younger people looking at studies in science and even careers in science. Even if they decide on a career path outside of science, the background certainly doesn’t hurt. The lack of science knowledge in government is a big impediment to progress. There is no way to explain the concepts to a 70 something year old person that doesn’t know the basics.

    • Richard Malcolm says:

      Even if one happens to be more of a skeptic on anthropogenic climate change, it’s really hard to say we know enough about Earth climate at this point.

      • Kenneth_Brown says:

        I’m not completely sold on the conclusions being drawn, but I am convinced that there is measurable impact from manmade activities. Rather than breaking the bank collecting more data, I’d rather see NASA doing other things like having a manned space program that means something and taking money from the NSA/NROL budgets for science projects. There should also be more budgets ranking the things that can be done to reduce pollution in order of simplicity.

        I’m a big proponent of EVs (but not Tesla). Even if they are charged from an energy mix that is pure coal, they are cleaner than petrol/diesel cars and get cleaner as the grid gets cleaner. Just as important is the reduction of imported oil and the political entanglements that comes with that. Not only political issues, but also train car loads of money leaving the US economy to places that actively hate the US. Just maybe, if there is more money kept in the country’s economy, NASA can be allocated more budget to keep doing the things that move us into the future. The US has pretty much squandered it’s lead since the 60’s.

  3. Obediah Headstrong says:

    Who would have guessed….Exit Moon project. Enter Earth observation. Looking inwards instead of looking outwards. The woke force is getting stronger. Gaia deserves it.

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