NASA wants a big budget increase for its lunar plans. Is Congress biting?

NASA wants a big budget increase for its lunar plans.  Is Congress biting?
Enlarge / NASA manager Jim Bridenstine says competition is good for the Artemis Moon program.

Probability of NASA returning humans to the moon by 2024 longNot -0, but very close.

Perhaps the biggest short-term obstacle facing the space agency is funding. Specifically, NASA is asking for an additional $3.2 billion in fiscal year 2021, allowing contractors to build one or more landers to take astronauts to the lunar surface in high lunar orbit. This is a 12% increase in NASA’s overall budget.

The fiscal year of 2021 begins on a week of October 1. The US Congress recently passed a “persistent resolution” that will fund the government by December 11. Around that time, after the 2020 elections, the House and Senate may agree on a budget to support priorities for the rest of the fiscal year.

NASA manager Jim Bridenstine said this week it would be possible to fund the Artemis Moon program before the end of the year. In a call to reporters, he told reporters, “If we can do that before Christmas, we have a lunar landing in 2024.”

The real question is whether Congress will be willing to do so to fund the lander if it can agree on a 2021 fiscal year budget in this radical partisan era. This is an entirely new program that will eventually cost billions of dollars to pay off. At deliberations earlier this year, the House of Representatives only provided $600 million, and less than a fifth of the budget NASA said it needed next year.

So the Senate says

Wednesday provided the first opportunity for the Senate to at least publicly assess whether it will further support the Artemis program and its aggressive 2024 targets.

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In his opening remarks, Kansas Republican Jerry Moran, chairman of the Senate subcommittee overseeing NASA’s budget, said kindly about Artemis. However, he pointed out that NASA’s request for a larger budget was set against the pandemic and the resulting financial crisis.

“Our world has changed significantly since the initial budget announcement, and we look forward to pushing Artemis forward as NASA discusses how to adapt to our new and unprecedented environment,” Moran said.

The committee’s ranking of Democrats seemed to be much less supportive. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire noted that NASA’s proposed budget again cut funding for STEM education and did not support the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. “We know NASA needs more than just one Moonshot,” she laughed at Bridenstine. Shaheen characterized the 12% budget increase as being “generous”.

During a later Q&A period, Moran asked Bridenstine if it would be more practical for NASA to quickly select a single contractor to build the lander so the agency could focus its resources.

Bridenstine rebelled against it by mentioning the value of competition. Earlier this year, the space agency Select three teamsLed by Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX, we shape the lander proposal and tell us how much government funding NASA thought it would need to complete the project by 2024. A group of 3 landing teams in February.

One, two or three?

In recent months, there have been talks in the aerospace community that more than one lander team is pushing for all funding this February, hinting that the other team is unable to meet the technical challenges.

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However, Bridenstine seems to be dedicated to moving forward with more than one team. “I’m worried about going down to 1,” he said. “When you get rid of the competition, you inevitably lead to programs that are pulled and face cost overruns.” With at least two providers competing, NASA will fall into a “virtual cycle” where the team invests their money and pushes them as hard as possible, Bridenstine said.

For his recent success model, he cited a commercial crew program where SpaceX and Boeing competed to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX won that competition and NASA won it within a “fixed price” contract in 2014. Two competitors spur the company to keep moving despite technical issues, Bridenstine said.

When considering whether to fund Artemis, lawmakers will finally have some difficult numbers to consider for the program. In “Artemis Plan” document What NASA released on Monday was the first to apply a specific dollar figure to the cost ($27.9 billion) expected to land on the moon by 2024. Of that, $16.1 billion will be spent on developing the “initial” human landing system. This is a funding requirement up to fiscal year 2025.

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