It was only a little more than one month ago that Vice President Mike Pence gave NASA a bold new direction—a goal of landing humans back on the Moon by 2024. Be urgent, he told the space agency. Work with purpose. We can, and must, do better as a nation in space, he said.
But in the weeks since Pence’s speech in Huntsville, Alabama, the reality of space policy has begun to settle in. For starters, it won’t be cheap to return to the Moon. Moreover, elements of NASA’s bureaucracy have already begun to resist the accelerated schedule and pressure the White House to hew to existing plans. And politically, the goal may well be a non-starter in a divided Congress.
For the last month, NASA has been working with the White House Office of Management and Budget to develop an amendment to President Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2020, which will seek additional funding for the accelerated Moon program. The amendment may come out this week, or it could be delayed further as wrangling continues. When it is released, the amendment will provide our first clear indication of how much bringing forward a lunar landing from NASA’s originally planned date, 2028, to 2024 would cost.
It will be a lot of money, regardless. According to two Washington, DC-based sources, NASA has informed the White House that it will need as much as $8 billion a year, for the next five years, to speed development of the Space Launch System rocket, a Lunar Gateway, a lunar lander, new spacesuits, and related hardware for a 2024 landing. This is on top of the agency’s existing annual budget of about $20 billion, which includes everything from the International Space Station to astrophysics research.
Such an increase in budget would be unprecedented for the agency outside of the first years of the Apollo Moon program in the early 1960s. NASA would also like the ability to purchase large amounts of hardware at the outset, instead of paying annually, in what is known as “multi-year procurement.” This would be difficult for Congress to accept because it would limit their year-to-year oversight of NASA’s budget for the Moon program.
Any budget for NASA must get through both the US House of Representatives as well as the Senate. Foremost among the hurdles are the Appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate that oversee NASA’s budget. This is a problem that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a former Republican Congressman, well knows. “The bigger risk, that has to be retired earlier, is the political risk. How do we get the money? And so we have to make sure that, as much as possible, we’re driving bipartisan, apolitical decisions and processes into the matrix,” he told Ars earlier this month.
The House, controlled by Democrats, poses the biggest problem. The House Appropriations subcommittee that sets NASA’s budget is chaired by New York’s José Serrano, who has been in office since 1990 but who said in March this would be his last term because of the effects of Parkinson’s disease.
Serrano was born in Puerto Rico and has condemned the Trump administration for what he characterized as the president’s efforts to “undermine” the island’s recovery after Hurricane Maria in 2017. In his last term in office, Serrano has no incentive whatsoever to give in to a budget request for the Trump administration, which could lead to a triumph for the president at the end of his second term if he were to win reelection.
Serrano has already noted that the year 2020, for the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket, and 2024, for the lunar landing, appear to be “political deadlines.” During a March 27 hearing of his House appropriations subcommittee, Serrano appeared to be more than happy with NASA’s existing timeline of a 2028 lunar landing.
“In a friendly gesture, let me tell you that, as you well know, 75 percent of our profession is perception,” he told Bridenstine. “And the perception by many is that what is being done, accelerated, is so that you can come in and excite the country a few months before something that’s going to happen in November 2020. So understand that that’s out there for people to talk about.”
But it’s not just the House. Although the Senate Appropriations committee is led by a Republican, Richard Shelby, it is not clear whether he supports accelerating the lunar program. Shelby’s priority has always been funding for the Space Launch System rocket, a program that is managed in his home state. Statements by Pence and Bridenstine about possibly using commercial rockets, instead of the SLS, for parts of a lunar mission have not gone over well with Shelby.
The entirety of NASA is not behind the administration, either. There are those within the agency who oppose the goal because they do not believe it is technically possible or is too vulnerable to succumbing to “schedule pressure.” But the most important constituency is senior leadership in the agency, including human spaceflight chief Bill Gerstenmaier, who are reluctant to change because it upsets their established plans.
From its outset, as the Trump administration has sought to accelerate the return of humans to deep space, Gerstenmaier has resisted for various reasons. Back in 2017, the White House asked the agency to consider flying astronauts on the maiden launch of the massive SLS rocket, known as Exploration Mission-1. Eventually, Gerstenmaier’s answer came: it was unsafe. The plan was set aside.
Earlier this year, after it became apparent the SLS rocket would be delayed beyond its latest launch date of June 2020, Bridenstine asked Gerstenmaier to study moving the launch Exploration Mission-1 onto an existing US rocket—either United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy or SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Similarly, the study from Gerstenmaier’s team came back that this was an impractical solution.
Finally, in a last-ditch effort to keep the SLS on schedule to launch in 2020—and to demonstrate that NASA really is making progress toward the Moon—Bridenstine asked Gerstenmaier to consider skipping the “green run” test of the SLS rocket in advance of its first launch. Gerstenmaier’s answer came in the form of a memo last week saying the test must happen and that “Urgency is our mantra and we must do it right.”
On top of this dynamic, there is also a schism between the White House and Gerstenmaier’s team about what to do at the Moon. Pence has made clear his desire that NASA develop a lunar station at the South Pole to study the possibility of using ice on the Moon as propellant. However, Gerstenmaier prefers to focus NASA’s development on the Lunar Gateway, in orbit near the Moon. He views a lunar space station as a less-risky goal that would allow for more international partnerships and build on NASA’s experience with the International Space Station.
The end game
It is not clear how this will play out. The White House is not likely keen on asking Congress for an additional $8 billion a year in funding for NASA, because it knows the answer it will receive from Democrats there—.
At NASA headquarters, Gerstenmaier and this team that plays a central role in developing policy for the space agency are likely content to play a waiting game. Without an increased budget he can continue to spend money on developing the SLS rocket for some future launch date and begin procuring elements of the Lunar Gateway. He can make some small investments in a lunar lander but doesn’t have to commit to its development before the end of next year, which may bring a new president and new priorities.
For Bridenstine, who genuinely would like to see NASA soar and reach the Moon more quickly, the road ahead is a difficult one. To truly land humans on the Moon within NASA’s existing budget would require some radical changes. This may include ending the Gateway or giving up on the SLS rocket and its costly budget, relying more on rockets like the Falcon Heavy and forthcoming New Glenn launcher instead. The agency would also need to consider staging lunar lander missions from low-Earth orbit, instead of lunar orbit, due to the limitations of these less-powerful, but also considerably less-expensive (and reusable) rockets.
What seems most probable is that, absent a forceful intervention from Pence and possibly President Trump, the status quo for NASA will remain—developing the large SLS rocket, the Orion spacecraft, and a Lunar Gateway for eventual missions in deep space sometime in the 2020s. Human landings on the Moon or Mars will remain distant, hazy goals.