NASA’s Bridenstine eyes creative funding for moon lander

Budget deadlock puts 2024 date at risk for Artemis moon mission

As the U.S. Congress works to pass funding legislation for fiscal 2020, NASA’s Artemis program hangs in the balance, awaiting appropriations to start development of three lunar landers, one of which would take astronauts to the surface of the moon in 2024.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today that he sees a possible path forward for Artemis in the short term even in the absence of a congressional appropriation, should matters come to that.

“It could be that because we have already allocated money toward a lot of studies,” Bridenstine said, “we could actually move forward without necessarily the appropriation, because we’ve already been appropriated for these activities in a much smaller way.”

Bridenstine spoke at a Space Transportation Association luncheon on Capitol Hill.

Later in the discussion, he stated his point more forcefully: “Whether we have the appropriations or not, contractors are moving forward either way.”

Feeling the time crunch, NASA in January plans to select three lander designs for further work, with the ensuing development work to be covered by $1 billion of the $1.6 billion supplemental appropriation requested last May but not yet acted on by Congress. NASA would later select two of the winning designs for completion, the strategy being to improve the odds that at least one lander will be ready on time for 2024.

For the 2020 fiscal year that started in October, NASA and other agencies are operating under a congressional continuing resolution that is set to expire Dec. 20.

The Senate passed an appropriations bill in October that would give the agency $744 million of the $1 billion, but the House bill was passed before the supplemental request was made. “I don’t know if they can come up with that $1 billion,” Bridenstine said of the House and Senate negotiators who are trying to reconcile the bills.

The $744 million passed by the Senate would be sufficient to start work on the landers, Bridenstine said.

The House and Senate committees are holding conferences to work out the disagreements between their two NASA appropriations bills.

One of the conferees is Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., an ardent supporter of the 2024 date who drafted the bill that would grant $744 million to NASA.

“Certainly one of my priorities is to nudge and encourage the House to join the Senate in advancing the date on which we will return to the moon,” he told me an interview earlier this week. Without at least the $744 million, he said, “it seems pretty unlikely” that U.S. boots could be on the moon in 2024.

Bridenstine echoed those sentiments today: “There is going to come a time when we’re going to have to say this [2024 deadline] is no longer reasonable,” he said, but “I don’t know what that date is at this point.”

And even if the funding is granted, NASA has yet to tell Congress what it expects Artemis to cost in total, beyond a very rough estimate from Bridenstine of $20 billion to $30 billion.

“I wish we had those numbers right now,” Moran told me. He said he’s eager to see the full cost estimate in February when the White House submits NASA’s fiscal 2021 budget request.

Bridenstine tried to reassure those who are worried that NASA’s scientific aspirations could be scaled back to pay for Artemis.

“I’m trying to bring the science community with us for Artemis,” he said. “There’s been this history at NASA where if you fund human exploration by default you’re bringing down science,” and vice versa, but “that’s not how the future is.”

Looking past the 2020 budget, Bridenstine predicted that “people are going to be very happy with the 2021 budget” request in February.

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Human Spaceflight

“There is going to come a time when we’re going to have to say this [2024 deadline] is no longer reasonable,” but “I don’t know what that date is at this point.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine

NASA’s Bridenstine eyes creative funding for moon lander