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Congress greenlights NASA's crewed moon lander — sort of

Congress greenlights NASA's crewed moon lander — sort of
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The good news is that the NASA spending bill for the current fiscal year, passed months late, has enough money to start the development of a crewed lunar lander. The bad news is that Congress is being stingy with the amount of money it is allowing the space agency to spend and has added conditions.

Space Policy Online notes that the bill provides $600 million of lunar surface and cis-lunar space development, which includes lunar landers, less than half of what was requested. Also, NASA must provide a detailed timeline for implementing Artemis, the lunar landing program, which will include budget estimates and key milestones per fiscal years before funding above 40 percent of that total is released. The article concludes, “The decision to provide less than half the request for the human lunar landers, a sine qua non for landing people on the Moon, already may seal the fate of that 2024 goal, a date tied to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE’s potential reelection.”

NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineWhat should Biden do with NASA and the Artemis Program? The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden increases Electoral College win The Hill's Morning Report - Trump battles ballots; vaccine news boosts markets MORE, on the other hand, chose to take a glass half full reaction to the new spending bill. “Great news! If passed, the spending bill gives @NASA funding for a human lunar lander for the first time since Apollo! We are grateful for the BIPARTISAN support & will continue to work with Congress to secure the funds needed to land the 1st woman & next man on the Moon by 2024!”

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Clearly while some are ready to throw in the towel for landing anyone on the moon by 2024, Bridenstine regards the goal as a work in progress. Indeed, if the appropriations bill had not passed, he had a plan to get the ball rolling on human lunar landers anyway. The new head of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, has said that funding will not be used as an excuse for not meeting the 2024 goal.

Reading between the lines of Bridenstine’s tweet, it is clear that the NASA administrator hopes to shake loose more money from Congress to keep Artemis on schedule for a 2024 moon landing. But NASA can enhance its chances of getting more money by doing a number of things.

First, it must articulate a plan to get moon boots on the lunar soil by 2024. Congress is demanding it. The General Accounting Office is recommending it. Currently the space agency suggests that a detailed plan won’t be available until the end of 2020. If at all possible, it should happen sooner rather than later. Naturally such a report will have the usual caveats that every plan for developing new space hardware has since technical glitches and funding shortfalls can delay milestones.

Next, NASA should get serious about explaining why America is returning to the moon. So far, the space agency is largely depending on the “coolness factor” to get Americans, particularly Congress, to buy into going back to the moon. NASA must articulate the tangible benefits, especially in sciencecommerce and political soft power that American and allied astronauts living and working on the moon will garner. Such an explanation would be an effective answer to those who ask, “Why are we going to the moon when we could be...” And then they insert a pressing earthly problem such as the environment, homelessness, health care or any other issue that is not space exploration. Teach such people the awesome power of the word “and.”

Finally, NASA and her international and commercial partners need to perform. Crucial events such as space launches cannot keep shifting to the right on timelines as has been the case with so many other large-scale space projects. The folks who are working on Artemis will find more support and excitement forthcoming when they start launching things and eventually people to the moon.

Incidentally, scrapping the super-expensive space launch system in favor of commercial rockets such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the upcoming Starship and the Blue Origin New Glenn has been ubiquitous among experts outside of NASA. But the political reality that the SLS benefits too many powerful members of Congress, their constituents and their campaign contributors to be cancelled must be lived with. NASA has to make the SLS work and find ways to make building and operating it less expensive, while using as much commercial hardware as possible. The task will be difficult, but the space agency has achieved much more difficult things, after all.

Mark R. Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled, “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.