Trump goes all in for NASA's Artemis return to the moon program

Trump goes all in for NASA's Artemis return to the moon program
© UPI Photo

Several media sources indicate that under the FY2021 budget proposal, the Trump administration will propose a nearly $3 billion increase for NASA, with most of the extra money going to building commercially operated lunar landers. By so doing, Trump has decided to go all in for landing the “first woman and the next man” on the moon by 2024. He is also going to directly challenge some in Congress who have expressed reservations about that goal.

For example, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Aeronautics and Space, Rep. Kendra HornKendra Suzanne HornOvernight Energy: Iconic national parks close over coronavirus concerns | New EPA order limits telework post-pandemic | Lawmakers urge help for oil and gas workers Bipartisan lawmakers urge assistance for oil and gas workers Overnight Defense: Pentagon curtails more exercises over coronavirus | House passes Iran war powers measure | Rocket attack hits Iraqi base with US troops MORE, (D-Okla.), expressed reservations on Twitter.

“The devil is in the details,” she wrote. “While the NASA budget preview includes an encouraging increase, it's nowhere near the $5-6 billion that NASA's Bridenstine said is needed for a 2024 Moon landing. When we talk about plans as big as returning to the moon, the details matter.”

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Horn’s subcommittee recently passed a NASA authorization bill that would curtail plans to establish a lunar base and use lunar resources to help sustain astronaut explorers. One of the bill’s features is a provision to force the space agency to abandon the idea of commercially operated lunar landers in favor of a single, NASA-owned lander.

Some observers have noted that the bill’s language seemed written to establish Boeing as the prime contractor for the lunar lander. That decision is called into question by the news of multiple software failures in the Boeing Starliner spacecraft, caused by a dysfunctional corporate culture.

In any event, NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineHow SpaceX is prospering in the year of the coronavirus pandemic The coronavirus pandemic argues for more funding for NASA's Artemis program, not less Katherine Johnson, 'hidden figure' at NASA during 1960s space race, dies at 101 MORE has a monumental task ahead of him. First, he must answer Rep. Horn about what appears to be a reduction in the cost of sending Americans back to the moon by 2024. NASA has been working on the plan, with a timeline and a cost estimate, and is due to release the results shortly.

Then Bridenstine will have to convince the gatekeepers of NASA spending why America should move relatively quickly to get back to the moon. He will likely try to explain that a thing worth doing is worth doing sooner rather than later. The farther into the future that a goal is set, the more likely it is that the American government will suffer another attack of ADD like the one that ruined the last two efforts to return to the moon.

Bridenstine will also have to explain why the NASA authorization bill is a horrible idea. The House Science Committee has already gotten an earful, from both the commercial space sector and the scientific community, not to mention Bridenstine. But the House members need to understand that establishing a lunar base, using the moon’s resources, with the help of the commercial sector, is not only the right approach, but the only one.

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Finally, Bridenstine will have to reassure Congress that given the resources, NASA can achieve a crewed lunar landing by 2024. Lori Garver, the deputy administrator of NASA during the Obama presidency, is casting doubt that the space agency can meet the deadline it has set for itself. She is right that large-scale space projects have not met deadlines since Apollo. On the other hand, Garver has expressed opposition to the Artemis program, suggesting instead that NASA concentrate on climate change. Perhaps by coincidence, Garver is the head of an organization called Earthrise Alliance, a nonprofit whose purpose is to gather data on climate change.

The struggle to get NASA the funding it needs to return to the moon by 2024 will play against the backdrop of the most contentious presidential elections in a generation. Congressional Democrats have just tried and failed to impeach and remove President TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders says he wouldn't 'drop dead' if Trump decided on universal healthcare Overnight Health Care: Trump officials lay groundwork for May reopening | Democrats ramp up talks with Mnuchin on next relief deal | Fauci says death toll could be around 60,000 Hillicon Valley: State officials push for more election funds | Coronavirus surveillance concerns ramp up pressure for privacy bill | Senators warned not to use Zoom | Agencies ask FCC to revoke China Telecom's license MORE from office. The Democratic Party is undergoing a primary process that can charitably be called chaotic, with a number of candidates who may be unelectable.

Congress has been tardy passing funding bills in the best of times. In an election year, getting any appropriations bill to the president’s desk by the end of the current fiscal year may be too difficult for representatives and senators eager to get home and campaign to save their jobs.

The Trump administration, with Bridenstine as the point man on the fight to fund Artemis, have their work cut out for them. Actually, getting astronauts back to the moon may seem easy compared to getting the money to accomplish the feat.

Mark 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.