In Washington D.C. this week, members of U.S. Congress and space experts voiced serious concerns about NASA’s current plan to send American men and women to the Moon in just five years.
On March 26, 2019, Vice President Mike Pence told NASA it has five years to put Americans back on the Moon, which was four years ahead of the previously scheduled return date of 2028. This directive represented a small step for the Trump Administration, but it’s very possibly a giant leap too far for NASA, according to comments made at a U.S. Congressional subcommittee hearing held in Washington D.C.
This is a critical time for NASA’s Artemis program, as U.S. Congress mulls over its 2021 budget, to be released early next year. The space agency is currently scrambling to appease this presidential order, with NASA hinting it would need an additional $US25 ($37) billion over the next 5 years to accelerate the timeline, which represents an additional $US4 ($6) billion to $US5 ($7) billion annually. That said, NASA has yet to provide the House Appropriations Committee will full cost estimate, much to its frustration.
The hearing held this week was titled, “Keeping Our Sights on Mars Part 2: Structuring a Moon-Mars Program for Success,” and it was organised by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
In her opening remarks, Subcommittee Chair Kendra Horn (D-Oklahoma) said the “critical questions before us now are what decisions and actions are needed to structure a Moon and Mars program for sustainability and success,” adding that “it is imperative that we take this opportunity to hear from our witnesses on what it takes to create a sustainable and effective pathway toward sending humans to the Moon and Mars.”
Those witnesses were former NASA astronaut Thomas P. Stafford, who participated in the Gemini and Apollo programs, and A. Thomas Young, the former director of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Centre.
Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) did not mince words during her opening remarks, expressing serious doubts about NASA’s current plan. While Johnson said she supports a “robust” program to eventually send Americans to Mars, it has to be “sustainable.”
Ah, there’s that word again: sustainable. It was certainly the word of the day, appearing no less than six times in the prepared remarks made by Horn and Johnson.
Here’s more of what Johnson had to say:
Unfortunately, based on the limited information provided to date, the Administration’s 2024 lunar landing directive appears to be neither executable nor a directive that will provide a sustainable path to Mars.
Proponents of the Administration’s crash program may argue that such a deadline will instill a sense of urgency and motivation into our space program. However, an arbitrary deadline that is uninformed by technical and programmatic realities, that is unaccompanied by a credible plan, and that fails to identify the needed resources is one that sets NASA up to fail rather than enabling it to succeed. Not only does that do the hardworking men and women of NASA and its contractor team a real disservice, but it will wind up weakening American leadership in space rather than strengthening it.
Of course, the “arbitrary deadline” referred to by Johnson is not a NASA invention. This due date was foisted upon the space agency by Trump, who may have chosen this particular timeline to coincide with the end of a possible two-term presidency.
Of course, it takes two to tango. NASA chief Jim Bridenstine refuses to admit that NASA is incapable of meeting this deadline or the technological innovations demanded by the Artemis missions, saying the space agency can most certainly accomplish this task—but only if fully funded. The ball, as far as Bridenstine is concerned, is fully in the U.S. Congress’s court.
During the hearing, both Stafford and Young expressed similar concerns with the current Artemis plan.
“The mission I did [Apollo 10] accomplished the whole thing with one launch,” said Stafford, as reported in SpaceNews. Citing comments made elsewhere by former NASA official Doug Cooke, Stafford said the “probability of success as [Cooke] outlined—and I cannot disagree with it—was only 50 per cent,” he told the House subcommittee. “I would certainly not want to start that.” In reference to NASA’s still uncompleted jumbo rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), Stafford said, “If you don’t have it, you’re not going to make it.”
Young said NASA should entertain more conventional approaches in terms of how Artemis should be managed, such as fewer “experiments” with contractors, whether it be to develop crew capsules or lunar landers. These endeavours “should be government-acquired assets under the leadership and direction of NASA,” said Young, as reported in SpaceNews. Young added that NASA is overwhelmed right now with Artemis and other missions and that a smart immediate next step would be to delay the proposed $US504 ($743) million Lunar Gateway project, a plan to construct a relay station in orbit around the Moon. The Lunar Gateway makes sense for a mission to Mars, but for the Moon, not so much, he said.
This isn’t the first time a House committee has articulated these sorts of concerns. Back on October 16, the House Appropriations Committee conducted a hearing about NASA’s Moon landing proposal. Here’s what Congressman José E. Serrano (D-New York), the Chair of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, had to say during this hearing:
At a time of huge financial needs across numerous government programs all competing for funding within the budget caps, an additional $US25 ($37) billion cost would severely impact vital programs not only under this Subcommittee, but across all non-defence Subcommittees.
Another concern that I have is the lack of a serious justification for such a cost increase. Since NASA had already programmed the lunar landing mission for 2028, why does it suddenly need to speed up the clock by four years—time that is needed to carry out a successful program from a science and safety perspective. To a lot of Members, the motivation appears to be just a political one—giving President Trump a moon landing in a possible second term, should he be reelected. [...]
We cannot sacrifice quality just to be quick. We cannot sacrifice safety to be fast. And we cannot sacrifice other government programs just to please the President.
So yeah, support from U.S. Congress appears to be waning, both for practical and political reasons. Not to be too pessimistic about things, but the 2024 timeline appears to be in serious jeopardy if U.S. Congress has anything to say about it, but we’ll have to wait and see.