WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is asking Congress for an additional $1.6 billion to bankroll its ambitious goal of returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, four years ahead of schedule under a program being dubbed "Artemis."
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine Monday announced the new name of the lunar return program – recognizing the twin sister of the Greek God Apollo which NASA used for its last lunar venture. July will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that carried astronauts to the surface of the moon.
Artemis was the goddess of the hunt and the moon. NASA is planning to include at least one woman among the next crew slated for a lunar landing.
The additional request for funding would come on top of the $21 billion the administration proposed in its 2020 budget request for the year beginning Oct. President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that the proposed budget increase is necessary "so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!"
Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars. I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 13, 2019
The money to pay for the accelerated schedule is coming from a reduction in the budget for Pell grants that help defray the cost of higher education for lower-income students. The cut to the higher education program could meet political resistance on Capitol Hill where Democrats control the House.
Bridenstine said more money will be needed in the coming years to meet the 2024 goal. Though annual funding requests are expected to exceed the $1.6 billion being sought for 2020, he said NASA has yet to determine a final cost.
The administrator said he has begun reaching out to lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are in charge of approving extra spending on space programs.
The request comes several weeks after Vice President Mike Pence, chairing a National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, announced the new 2024 goal and an intent to pursue it “by any means necessary.”
“What we need now is urgency,” Pence said March 26. “Make no mistake about it, we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.”
It took until Monday for NASA to determine how much extra it would cost to cover the added technology and workforce costs to accelerate the schedule.
But House Democrats have questioned the need for the “crash program.” Critics also believe the 2024 target is driven by the administration’s desire for a high-profile achievement before the end of its second term, if it wins one.
Heading to Mars: How long does it take to get to Mars?
NASA is developing the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System, or SLS, to launch Orion crew capsules from Kennedy Space Center. Under the existing plan, astronauts would ride the SLS to a lunar gateway orbiting the moon before they would transfer to a lander to reach the south pole of the lunar surface.
The SLS has been plagued by delays and isn’t expected to perform a first test launch before 2021. NASA recently studied whether commercial rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy could launch crews to the moon, but determined the SLS was the only option within its five-year outlook.
Bridenstine's announcement Monday comes less than a week after Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' rocket venture, unveiled a plan to launch a manned mission to the moon, the Amazon CEO announced Thursday. It would be the first commercial moon landing ever.
In the space arena where expensive, long-term priorities constantly vie with each other for a relatively modest amount of federal dollars, more money for a lunar return is sometimes seen by advocates of a Mars mission as less money for them.
Bridenstine tried to allay those concerns during an appearance Tuesday at a Humans to Mars Summit in Washington.
"We’re going to the moon because we want to get to Mars with humans," he said. "When we send humans to mars, we have to be able to live and work on another world for long periods of time using the resources of that world. The best way to prove those capabilities and prove those technologies is to do it at the moon."
Like what you're reading?: Download the USA TODAY app for more
Contributing: James Dean, Florida Today; Chris Quintana, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NASA names new moon landing mission 'Artemis' as Trump administration asks for $1.6 billion