Actually, About That Whole 'We're Going to the Moon in 2024' Thing...

David Grossman
Photo credit: ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • NASA has been seeking a "down payment" for a new program that would return astronauts to the moon by 2024, in addition to establishing a long term base there in 2028.
  • Congress is skeptical the mission will happen in time.
  • NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine warned that by 2028, the political will for a return to the moon might run out.

Both Democrats and Republicans on the congressional subcommittee that funds NASA expressed deep skepticism about the agency's plans for an acceleration of its Artemis program, which would see humans land on the lunar surface by 2024.

With the help of the White House, NASA has been seeking an additional $1.6 billion, which Administrator Jim Bridenstine referred to in May as a "down payment" to help NASA reach the moon four years earlier than 2028, its previous goal. NASA said at the time that the new goal, known as Artemis, was part of a "two-phased approach: the first is focused on speed—landing astronauts on the moon in five years—while the second will establish a sustained human presence on and around the moon by 2028."

But in a recent hearing, Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice, and science subcommittee, expressed doubt about the two-phase plan.

“It’s hard to justify any extra spending on this effort in the current fiscal year when we don’t know the costs down the road,” Serrano said in his opening statement, per SpaceNews. The original goal of solely focusing on 2028 would allow NASA to "have a successful, safe, and cost-effective mission for the benefit of the American people and the world.”

Serrano also suggested that the 2024 date might have political motivations. "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," he said.

Speaking in favor of the 2024 date, Bridenstine said that "the challenge that we have as a nation is that the longer programs go, the more political risk that we have."

"When we look back to history," he continued, "the Space Exploration Initiative, it took decades in time and it eventually got canceled."

The Space Exploration Initiative, launched in 1989 by President George H.W Bush, was meant to establish a long-term human presence on the Moon before being canceled by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

"There are two types of risk," Bridenstine said. "Technical risk and political risk. It's not partisan, but when programs start going too long, people lose confidence."

But Serrano, noting that NASA hasn't yet offered a full price tag for the 2024 launch, said that "unless we know what this is going to cost at the end, it would be irresponsible for us to take the first step."

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) took issue with Bridenstine's "down payment" comment, comparing NASA's request to buying a car with only a down payment and not knowing the total price. “That’s not acceptable,” he said. “You need to know the total cost.”

Republicans were also concerned about the new date, saying it might weaken efforts to expand the growing private industry.

“I’m concerned that NASA could undercut its flexibility and incur unnecessary costs by foregoing opportunities to leverage existing assets in an attempt to simultaneously foster a commercial space economy,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Aderholt focused his questions on NASA's still under-construction Space Launch System (SLS), meant to be the agency's next generation of interplanetary rockets. Earlier this year, Bridenstine admitted the SLS might not be able to launch NASA missions in the 2020s.

“Given our current rate of production, we will have three SLS’s available” by 2024, Bridenstine said in response, “and the third one would be for Artemis 3, that takes us to the moon in 2024. I think that is fully within the realm of possibility, but a lot of things have to go right to make that happen.”

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