Senate Appropriations Committee Sticks a Fork in NASA’s 2024 Moon Landing Plan

Artemis Gateway (Credit: Thales Alenia Space/Briot)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It looks as if the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon in 2024 is expiring at about the same time as the administration itself. The fatal blow is being struck by Congress, not the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has released a fiscal year 2021 funding bill that includes $1 billion for NASA to Human Landing System (HLS) that will take astronauts to and from the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program. The amount is far short of the $3.2 billion that NASA has said is needed for HLS to keep the 2024 landing on schedule.

The Senate funding is an increase over the $628.2 million for HLS included in a spending bill passed by the House of Representatives. Differences between the House and Senate bills will be worked out in conference committee.

The Senate bill boosts NASA’s overall budget by $866 million to $23.5 billion, while the House measure keeps the space agency’s spending at a flat $22.6 billion. The Trump Administration had requested a $2.6 billion increase to $25.2 billion.

In a committee report that accompanies the spending bill, the Appropriations Committee noted uncertainty about the ultimate cost of HLS and its impact on the rest of NASA’s budget for not approval the full amount requested.

NASA has estimated HLS will cost $16 billion of the $28 billion in additional spending required to land astronauts during the Artemis III mission in 2024. Congress has already appropriated $35 billion for programs related to crewed exploration of the moon and Mars.

However, HLS remains under study and has not be defined. Earlier this year, NASA awarded study contracts to Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX with the goal of awarding at least one development contract in 2021.

“This uncertainty makes it difficult to analyze the future impacts that funding the accelerated Moon mission will have on NASA’s other important missions, not to mention the programs, projects, and activities funded elsewhere in the bill,” the report added. “In order to facilitate forward movement in the Artemis program, the Committee
has provided funds to allow for NASA to advance its human exploration program, including the development of landers, and awaits further definition of the program and a refined cost estimate.”

NASA had been planning to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2028. The Trump Administration announced it was moving up the deadline by four years in March 2019.

Congress’ refusal to fully fund HLS provides Biden with flexibility in resetting NASA’s budget and goals. The president-elect said little about space policy during the presidential campaign. Many observers believe the new administration will push back the target date for a return to the moon while boosting NASA’s Earth Science budget to better address climate change.

The first Artemis rocket stage is guided toward NASA’s Pegasus barge Jan. 8 ahead of its forthcoming journey to NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. (Credits: NASA)

The Senate has sought to tie Biden’s options in one area. The bill requires that NASA use the Space Launch System (SLS) to send NASA’s Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter ice-covered moon.

The requirement has been a source of tension between Congress, NASA and the Trump Administration. Critics have estimated the space agency could save $1 billion to $1.5 billion by launching Europa Clipper on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy.

There is also uncertainty over whether a SLS booster would be available in time for the planned launch of the Europa Clipper orbiter in 2024. The SLS program is running years behind schedule, and the Trump Administration prioritized using the boosters for the Artemis lunar program.

The House spending bill gives NASA more flexibility on launcher selection, saying the space agency should use SLS for Europa Clipper if a booster is available.

NASA officials postponed a critical design review for the Europa Clipper orbiter until the end of the year due to uncertainty over the launch vehicle.

Earlier this year, NASA officials said they had discovered a number of incompatibilities between SLS and Europa Clipper that would have to be resolved before the spacecraft could be launched on the rocket.

SLS has not yet flown; its maiden flight is scheduled for late 2021. Delta IV Heavy and Falcon Heavy are proven boosters whose performance is much better understood.