NASA Finally Puts a Price Tag on 2024 Moon Landing

NASA Finally Puts a Price Tag on 2024 Moon Landing
Artist's conception of a late-stage Artemis base camp near the lunar south pole. (Image: NASA)

NASA revealed new details about the Artemis moon landing program yesterday, including a detailed budget, project timelines, and an ambitious plan to build a permanent base at the lunar south pole.

For the United States to return to the Moon by 2024, it’s going to cost American taxpayers $US28 ($39) billion, of which $US16 ($22) billion would go toward the Human Landing System program. NASA disclosed these and other details about the upcoming Artemis program yesterday in a 74-page report.

Of this total, $US7.6 ($11) billion would be allocated to the Orion spacecraft and the upcoming Space Launch System, $US1 ($1.4) billion to the development of “exploration technologies,” and $US518 ($719) million to develop and manufacture lunar suits for the astronauts. The $US28 ($39) billion price tag applies to the budgetary years of 2021 to 2025.

The Human Landing System funding is the “most in jeopardy,” reports SpaceNews, after Congress “passed an appropriations bill in July that provided the program with a little more than $US600 ($832) million for fiscal year 2021, a fraction of the agency’s request of more than $US3.2 ($4) billion.” Speaking to reporters on Monday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he hopes to see this money by Christmas, which would mean NASA is “still on track for a 2024 moon landing,” AFP reports.

Conceptual image of the Blue Origin lunar lander. (Image: Blue Origin)Conceptual image of the Blue Origin lunar lander. (Image: Blue Origin)

It’s not certain that the House will approve this tranche of requested cash, especially given the ongoing global pandemic and looming election. That president Donald Trump fast-tracked the Artemis Moon landing from 2028 to 2024 won’t help the cause either, as the accelerated timeline has resulted in significantly increased costs over the short term.

There are currently three teams working on Human Landing System concepts, none of which have been officially approved by NASA for use during the lunar landings. The Blue Origin effort, which includes contributions from Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, appears to be an early frontrunner, having delivered a full-scale replica lander to NASA this past August. Dynetics and SpaceX are the other two private firms currently developing a lunar lander.

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Budgetary issues aside, the new report also contains tantalising details about the upcoming Artemis missions.

NASA said it wants to land near the lunar south pole, dispelling recent reports that the space agency was planning to land near the sites of former Apollo missions. Once at the southern polar regions, the Artemis astronauts would attempt to collect water ice, which the Apollo crews were unable to do at their locations.

The uncrewed Artemis I mission would involve the inaugural launch of NASA’s Space Launch System, which should happen in November 2021. The Orion spacecraft, designed to take astronauts to lunar orbit, has already been approved for prime time.

Artemis II would launch at some point in 2023 and deliver astronauts to lunar orbit, in what would be a reprise of the Apollo 8 and 10 “dress rehearsal” missions. This mission should give the crew an opportunity to manually pilot Orion, in a demonstration to assess the spacecraft’s “handling qualities and related hardware and software” which “cannot be readily gained on the ground in preparation for rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking, as well as undocking operations in lunar orbit beginning on Artemis III,” according to NASA.

During Artemis III, scheduled for 2024, NASA would deliver two astronauts — a man and a woman — to the lunar surface, which hasn’t seen a human footstep since 1972. The duo would stay on the surface for about seven days, during which time they’d collect samples and perform scientific experiments, among other tasks. These lunar explorers will be wearing fancy new spacesuits, dubbed Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Units, or xEMUs, designed to be more flexible and allow for more mobility than the Apollo versions.

Artist's concept of the lunar Gateway.  (Image: NASA)Artist’s concept of the lunar Gateway. (Image: NASA)

A plan to build the lunar Gateway outpost was also included in the new NASA report, but it may not be ready in time for Artemis III. That said, the space agency would very much like to use the Gateway for subsequent missions, offering a place for astronauts to pick up supplies prior to boarding the landing module. The orbiting outpost, in addition to deploying the lunar lander, “will support longer expeditions on the Moon, and potentially multiple trips to the surface during a single Artemis mission,” according to the report. The Gateway’s Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) is scheduled to launch together on a single rocket in 2023, in what will be the important first step in building this lunar space station.

NASA concept for a habitable rover.  (Image: NASA)NASA concept for a habitable rover. (Image: NASA)

After Artemis III is done and the Gateway is built, NASA will work to ensure sustainability on the lunar surface, which would happen in the mid- to late 2020s.

This phase of Artemis truly feels futuristic, with plans for the “incremental buildup of infrastructure on the surface,” NASA said. To that end, the space agency plans to deploy robotic rovers, a mobile facility with a pressurised cabin for the crew, a habitation module, power systems, and various on-site resource utilisation systems (crews will attempt, for example, to convert water ice into oxygen and fuel). Importantly, these missions would serve as a prelude for a crewed mission to Mars, which could happen in the 2030s.

All this is subject to change, of course. NASA needs $US28 ($39) billion to pull this off, and it’s no guarantee it’ll receive this tremendous sum. The pandemic and associated economic disruptions could have a serious bearing on the project and the proposed timelines.