Enlarge /. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says the competition is good for the Artemis Moon program.
The likelihood that NASA will send people back to the moon by 2024 is great – not zero, but pretty close.
Probably the biggest short-term obstacle facing the Space Agency is funding. Specifically, NASA needs an additional $ 3.2 billion in fiscal 2021 for contractors to begin building one or more lander to bring astronauts from high lunar orbit to the lunar surface. This corresponds to an increase in NASA's total budget by 12 percent.
Fiscal year 2021 starts in a week, on October 1st. The US Congress recently passed a "rolling resolution" that will fund the government through December 11th. By then, after the 2020 election, 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 Bridenstine said this week that funding for the Artemis Moon program would be viable before the end of this year. "If we can do that before Christmas, we're still on our way to a moon landing in 2024," he said in a call to reporters.
The real question is whether Congress, if it can agree on a budget for fiscal year 2021 in this harsh partisan period, will be so inclined to support the funding of the lander. This is a brand new program that will ultimately take many billions of dollars to bear fruit. In the deliberations earlier this year, the US House provided only $ 600 million, or less than one-fifth of the budget NASA needs for the coming year.
So says the Senate
Wednesday provided the first opportunity to at least publicly assess whether the Senate will be more supportive of the Artemis program and its aggressive target for 2024.
In his opening address, Kansas Republican, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget, Jerry Moran, had kind words about Artemis. However, 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 significantly since the budget was first published, and I look forward to discussing how NASA adapts to our new and unprecedented environment as it moves Artemis forward," said Moran.
The most senior democratic member of the committee seemed even less supportive. New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen noted that NASA's proposed budget again cut funding for STEM training and did not support the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. "We know that NASA has to be about more than just a single moon shot," she chided Bridenstine. Shaheen described the targeted budget increase of 12 percent as "generous".
Later, during a question-and-answer period, Moran asked Bridenstine if it might be more practical for NASA to quickly select a single contractor to build the lander so the agency could focus its resources.
Bridenstine pushed back, pointing out the value of competition. Earlier this year, the space agency selected three teams – led by Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX – to come up with lander proposals and let NASA know how much government funding they would think would be needed to complete the projects by 2024. With this information NASA plans to "search down" this first group of three landing teams in February.
One, two or three?
There has been talk in the aerospace industry for the past few months that one or more of the lander teams are pushing for all funding in February, implying that the other teams may not be able to handle the technical challenge.
But Bridenstine seems determined to move forward with two or more teams. "I'm worried about going to one," he said. "When you eliminate the competition, you end up with programs that are inevitably drawn out and cost overruns." With at least two competing vendors, Bridenstine said, NASA would get into a "virtuous cycle" in which teams invest their own money and push as hard as possible.
He cited the commercial crew program as the current successful model, in which SpaceX and Boeing fought for the flight of astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX won this competition and did so under the "fixed price" contract that NASA had awarded in 2014. Two competitors spurred companies to keep moving despite the technical challenges, Bridenstine said.
When considering whether to fund Artemis, lawmakers must finally consider some tough numbers for the program. In an "Artemis Plan" document released on Monday, NASA for the first time provided certain dollar figures for the estimated cost of landing on the moon by 2024: $ 27.9 billion. Of this, $ 16.1 billion would be used to develop an "initial" human landing system. These are the funding requirements until the 2025 fiscal year.