For NASA’s Artemis program, the future’s uncertain and the end may not be near
by Douglas Messier
Fall arrived on Tuesday and, along with cooler temperatures, earlier sunsets and changing leaves, the new season brought what has become an annual ritual in our nation’s capital: the running of the appropriators.
Three months before Christmas is the least wonderful time of the year for those working on the massive federal budget. Having spent seven months failing to act on a presidential budget request submitted in February, legislators spend the last days of September cobbling together a temporary spending bill to keep the government from shutting down when the new year begins on Oct. 1.
The temporary bill — known as a continuing resolution or CR — allows the federal government to continue spending at existing levels for a few more weeks or months until a budget can be approved. Sometimes multiple resolutions are needed before agreement is reached.
It’s one hell of a way to run a railroad. But, the alternative — a government shutdown as politicians bicker over who is to blame — has proven to be extremely unpopular with the pubic. It seems like the only thing people hate more than a dysfunctional government is one that isn’t functioning at all.
A shutdown now would be especially bad timing given the country’s sorry state. The COVID-19 pandemic has now killed 200,000 Americans, millions of people are out of work, businesses are shut down, there are mass protests in the streets over racial injustice, and a deeply divided electorate is about to vote for president.
People keep asking what else 2020 could throw at us. A lot, actually. Much of it far worse than a government shutdown. Just the same, Washington would be wise to avoid adding that to the country’s list of problems.
To the Stars with a CR
Although a continuing resolution keeps the government operating temporarily, it creates major headaches for the people who run federal agencies and departments. With only limited, budget increases and new program starts are put on hold while Congress and the president wrangle over the budget.
For NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the annual budget impasse has become a very serious problem. Eighteen months ago, the Trump Administration moved up the date for returning astronauts to the surface of the moon from 2028 to 2024.
The accelerated Artemis program requires large budget increases that Congress has been unable to provide on a timely basis. Given the long lead times in developing space hardware, that’s not good at all.
During a media teleconference on Monday, Bridenstine said that despite the deadline being more than four years away, the window for meeting it has now shrunk to mere months.
The administrator said NASA needs a budget increase of $2.6 billion — from $22.6 billion to $25.2 billion — for fiscal year (FY) 2021 by December, or March at the very latest, in order to land astronauts in 2024.
NASA has proposed spending $3.2 billion in FY 2021 the Human Landing System (HLS) that would take astronauts to and from the lunar surface. HLS would account for $16.2 billion of the $28 billion NASA wants to spend on the Artemis program through FY 2025.
Although Bridenstine spoke of the strong bipartisan support for Artemis he has heard from members of Congress, that backing comes with a rather large asterisk. While there is broad support in both parties for returning astronauts to the moon, not everyone is on board with accelerating the program by four years.
The Republican Senate has been supportive of the accelerated program. However, the Democratic House of Representatives has provided NASA with a flat budget of $22.6 billion for FY 2021. The spending bill contains only $628.2 million of the $3.2 billion requested for HLS.
House members have expressed concerns that the landing, which would occur on only the second crewed Artemis mission, is being unnecessarily rushed to meet an arbitrary deadline for no compelling reason.
They also worry the schedule will not allow for proper testing of HLS and the Orion crew vehicle, thus placing astronauts at unnecessary risk.
Differences between the House and Senate spending bills will need to be worked out after the election. Adding to the uncertainty, both the presidency and Congress could be headed for Democratic control in January.
Rough Rollout, Uncertain Future
The Trump Administration arguably mishandled the rollout of the accelerated program. Officials do not appear to have consulted with Congress before Vice President Mike Pence announced the accelerated timeline in March 2019. Nor did NASA have a plan for accomplishing the goal.
Congress was thus faced with a supplemental request to boost NASA’s budget so the agency could begin developing a plan whose ultimate cost was unknown in order to meet an accelerated timeline that critics viewed as being largely based on the electoral calendar. (About which more later.)
The federal budget process is dysfunctional enough without throwing that into the gears. Congress can’t pass a budget on time, but the administration expected legislators to quickly address a plan that required large budget increases on a timely basis.
Congress is certainly capable of moving quickly in times of war or other national crisis. The $2 trillion COVID-19 stimulus law is proof of that.
But, you need a compelling reason to do so. Pence has raised the specter of China getting to the moon first, but the argument has not really resonated despite that nation’s surging space program.
The political calculations behind accelerating the Artemis program are also fairly transparent. A larger NASA budget goes over well in states like Florida, Texas and Alabama that President Donald Trump needs to win in order to be reelected.
The failure of Congress to pass a larger NASA budget and the disruptions caused by coronavirus has distracted from that message on the campaign trail. But even promising larger budgets for an accelerated program is helpful.
A moon landing in 2024 gives Trump the chance to place his oversized signature on the moon for all eternity, just like Richard Nixon did. It’s the ultimate branding opportunity.
Pence, who has been doing a lot of the heavy lifting as chairman of the National Space Council, could run for president in 2024 on having played a crucial role in making America great in space again.
Congressional Democrats are understandably loath to give Trump and Pence such political triumphs. If Joe Biden wins the presidency in November, they won’t have to do so.
What a Biden Administration would do with Artemis is unknown. Given the bipartisan consensus that the moon is the next logical destination for astronauts, the program could well survive with a later date for the first landing.
We’ll have a better idea in a few months. For now, we can only speculate.