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House appropriators cut NASA’s moon landing funds; will Senate do better?

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The Trump administration proposed in its budget submission for NASA for FY 2021 that $4.7 billion be allocated to exploration research and development (R&D), including the Human Landing System (HLS). The numbers were designed to assure that NASA could return astronauts to the moon by 2024.

However, the House Appropriators were pleased to disagree. The subcommittee that funds NASA marked up a bill that allocated $1.56 billion for exploration R&D. That means that the HLS would get just over $600 million for the next fiscal year, inadequate for achieving a 2024 moon landing.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine reacted to the news with his characteristic calm.

“I want to thank the House Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee for the bipartisan support for NASA’s Artemis program. The $628.2 million in funding for the human landing system (HLS) is an important first step in this year’s appropriations process. We still have more to do and I look forward to working with the Senate to ensure America has the resources the first woman and next man on the moon need in 2024.”

Someone less even tempered than Bridenstine might have instead responded, “You hacks in the House have no clue what it takes to return Americans to the moon. Hopefully, the Senate does.”

The analysis by Eric Berger in Ars Technica suggests that the Senate is likely to be more generous where the HLS in particular and exploration in general are concerned. The House markup is just the start of a long budget process that will be informed, as Berger suggests, by the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 presidential election.

Bridenstine is likely happy that the House Democrats have at least given him half a loaf for getting back to the moon at any date, not to mention 2024. Even so, the House NASA funding bill demonstrates that the House is willing to play partisan games, if not with the Artemis return to the moon program, at least with the 2024 landing date. The situation must be a source of frustration for the NASA administrator, who has been relentlessly nonpartisan in his pursuit of the 2024 moon landing goal.

The reason NASA wants to land “the first woman and the next man” on the moon just four years from now is the desire to avoid the ADD (attention deficit disorder) that led to the cancellation of the last two attempts to return Americans on the moon. Scheduling the next moon landing relatively soon would build up enough political momentum to sustain the establishment of a lunar base and the eventual missions to Mars.

House Democrats don’t see the 2024 date in such broad terms. They regard it as a plot by President Donald Trump to burnish his greater glory by having Americans return to the moon by the end of his hypothetical second term. Nothing torques Democrats more than anything that might be of benefit to President Trump. Hence, instead of a generous NASA budget that would accommodate a 2024 moon landing, the House appropriators have proposed a flat funding bill along partisan lines, with a return to the lunar surface happening perhaps in 2028, if at all.

Eric Berger is doubtlessly right that the final bill will not be hammered out until December. Not by coincidence, the date is after the presidential election, suggesting that what the 2021 NASA spending bill looks like will depend more on the election’s outcome than wrangling between a Democratic House and a Republican Senate.

If Trump wins reelection, then he can claim a mandate concerning a wide variety of issues, space being just one of those. The final spending bill will have funding levels more to his liking and would support the 2024 moon landing.

If former Vice President Joe Biden wins, then all bets are off. Team Biden has not yet presented a formal space policy proposal. The chances that Artemis will be curtailed or cancelled outright increase substantially in a Biden administration.

If Biden cancels Artemis, not all hope is lost. It is conceivable that someone like SpaceX’s Elon Musk will try a lunar return commercially, either by using the Starship, which is still in development, or perhaps by using a plan recently proposed by Robert Zubrin and Homer Hickam using commercial spacecraft and a to-be-developed lunar lander. Of course, Musk would have to make the project pay to do it on his own. 

The last alternative is to wait for a Chinese moon landing, which would sound a death knell to the United States as a great power.

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. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags 2021 fiscal year budget Budget Congress Donald Trump Elon Musk funding bill House Appropriations Committee Jim Bridenstine Joe Biden moon landing NASA NASA budget partisanship Senate Space exploration Space travel SpaceX

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