Just one day after NASA celebrated its new spacesuits designs for a 2024 moon mission, a Congressional budget leader on Wednesday dismissed the agency’s accelerated timeline for putting humans on the lunar surface.
“It is better to use the original NASA schedule of 2028,” said U.S. Rep Jose Serrano, a Democrat from New York and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for commerce, justice and science. This, he continued, would allow for a safe, cost effective and successful program.
Ever since the Trump administration directed NASA in March to put humans on the moon in 2024 instead of 2028, agency officials have been racing to meet the new deadline. They’ve awarded contracts for additional moon-bound spacecraft, they’ve unveiled new space suits and they’ve selected companies to send uncrewed lunar probes to do science on the surface before humans arrive.
They even announced a new leader of human exploration, Doug Loverro, on Wednesday who will help lead the charge to the moon.
But seven months after Trump’s directive, the funding for this endeavor remains questionable. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said the Artemis moon program could cost up to $30 billion, but the agency has not provided a budget plan to Congress. And such a plan will not be ready until early 2020.
“We all want to return to the moon, but we want to do it in a responsible way,” Serrano said. “I’m extremely concerned about the additional cost to move the date up to 2024.”
As the chairman of the committee that oversees NASA’s budget, Serrano has tremendous power to determine if and when programs are funded. But Serrano was quick to note Wednesday that he’s not killing the moon 2024 program, known as Artemis.
“I’m just asking the questions that need to be answered,” he said during a Wednesday committee meeting, noting that the motivation for this accelerated timeline seems political.
And its for political reasons that the initiative could get stalled, said Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee and editor of NASA Watch, a website devoted to space news.
“Here we are, 14 months from (an election) and everyone is doing the classic thing we see here in Washington: It’s time to start either waiting people out until after the election or now is the time to strike and get something in place before change happens,” Cowing said.
That’s likely one of the reasons Serrano is OK with a 2028 moon mission, Cowing said, especially since NASA programs backed by the current administration are typically gutted by the incoming president after the election.
But even without these political undertones, a 2024 launch date is optimistic to say the least. Bridenstine admitted so Wednesday.
“It’s not a guarantee, but it is in the realm of what is possible,” he told the committee.
Part of the problem is the rocket needed to launch the moon-bound spacecraft to the lunar vicinity — called the Space Launch System rocket — is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. It’s first launch, which will send an uncrewed capsule around the moon, still does not have an official launch date.
NASA most recently said the rocket, which Boeing has been building since 2012, would launch this uncrewed mission at the end of 2020. But after a federal report released in June said that launch was unlikely until the end of 2021, NASA began backing away from their timeline estimate.
The new date will be determined by Loverro, who is stepping into a role that’s been vacation since July when Bill Gerstenmaier — a pillar in NASA’s human exploration operations since 2005 — was ousted as the agency’s associate administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.
Cowing expects that the new date for the first Artemis mission will not be announced until the beginning of next year.
Despite these problems, NASA on Wednesday announced that it will continue to work with Boeing on future SLS rocket development.
Boeing already is working on rocket core stages — the center portion that contains two liquid fuel tanks — for the first two Artemis missions, which will be used for an uncrewed flight around the moon followed by one that is crewed.
NASA on Wednesday announced that it would provide the company initial funding to begin work on the core stage for the third Artemis mission, which will result in humans stepping foot on the moon. The full contact for this new rocket core stage will be completed within the year, and could support up to 10 core stages.
Loverro has spent decades working in the Department of Defense and the National Reconnaissance Office on national security space activities. He even served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy from 2013 to 2017.
He also is a supporter of Trump’s Space Force plan, and has written at least one opinion piece on the topic.
“Space is too critical for the nation’s defense not to have an organization that speaks for its importance, defends it against all comers, and jealously advocates for new missions and new responsibilities,” Loverro wrote in a June 2018 opinion piece published on SpaceNews.com. “Space is too crucial to national security to be stalled by a lack of focus and an unwillingness to respond until pushed.”
In the agency’s announcement, Bridenstine said he has worked with Loverro for many years and is highly respected in both civilian and defense programs.
“He is known for his strong, bipartisan work and his experience with large programs will be of great benefit to NASA at this critical time in our final development of human spaceflight systems for both Commercial Crew and Artemis,” Bridenstine said.
Cowing said he is heartened by the pick, even though Loverro appears to lack civilian space experience.
“It’s kind of a refreshing choice to pick someone outside the usual suspects within NASA human spaceflight,” Cowing said. “Clearly, how things have been running for the past decade is rockets don’t launch and bringing a new perspective is required.”