Has the Biden administration abandoned the idea of a moon base?

The Biden administration has released the details of its proposed fiscal 2022 budget. The language concerning NASA in general and Artemis in particular is of interest. 

While the overall NASA budget will be increased by $1.5 billion, the Artemis program will get a paltry $325 million boost. However, part of the language about Artemis is concerning.

The language does not mention the idea of a lunar base, which is part of the current Artemis program. The phrase, “a series of crewed exploration missions to the lunar surface and beyond” might suggest that the Biden administration is thinking of a succession of short-term lunar expeditions, on the model of the Apollo program, rather than a permanent lunar outpost, on the model of the International Space Station (ISS).

Last year, House Democrats attempted to eliminate funding for a lunar base in a NASA authorization bill. “Any establishment of a continuously crewed lunar outpost or research station shall not be considered an element of the Moon to Mars Program and shall be budgeted separately from the Moon to Mars Program.”

Artemis, in effect, would have become a Mars-centric program with any activities on the moon that did not directly contribute to the Mars goal to be removed. Besides no lunar base, the legislation ruled out in situ resource utilization and a commercial Human Landing System (HLS) within the Artemis program. How such activities would be “budgeted separately” was not revealed in the language of the legislation or by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Democrats, who had proposed it.

It is telling that the reaction to the proposed legislation was almost universally negative. Then-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was polite but firm in his objections. “We do think that the bill’s concerns for limiting activities on the Moon could be counterproductive.” It should be noted that while the bill was voted favorably by the House Subcommittee on Space and Aviation, it died in the full House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

A lunar base would not only serve as a testbed for eventual missions to Mars but would also serve a number of other purposes beyond the goal of a human landing on the Red Planet. A permanent human presence on the moon would facilitate the study of lunar science, especially of its geology. A commercial element at a moon base would enable development of a lunar mining industry, which would in turn help to create space-based industries. A lunar base would help to foster alliances between the United States and international partners, just as the ISS has done.

A study conducted by MIT suggested that access to lunar ice, which could be refined into rocket fuel, would achieve great savings in the weight and thus cost of a spacecraft taking astronauts to Mars. The ship would stop by the moon, top off its fuel tanks and then proceed on to Mars, saving the cost of lifting a full load from the Earth’s gravity well. But that arrangement would require a lunar base that would mine the ice, refine it into rocket fuel and then transport it to a waiting Mars ship in lunar orbit.

Of course, the lack of a specific reference to a lunar base may just be the result of a bureaucratic oversight. If so, then the Biden administration should be urged to reveal its thinking on the subject. A perfect opportunity may be the confirmation hearings for Biden’s nominee for NASA administrator, former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). 

It should also be noted that Bridenstine signaled his approval of the budget increase that the Biden administration has proposed for the space agency. He urged that the Senate quickly confirm Nelson so that “he can assess and advocate for NASA requirements.”

NASA and especially the Artemis moon-Mars program could serve as a shining example of bipartisanship from an administration that has thus far been conspicuously lacking in that quality in other areas.

Just as an aside, acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk also reacted favorably to the budget request but with a telling phrase. He stated that the budget request “Keeps NASA on the path to landing the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon under the Artemis program.”

The phrase replaced the one used by Bridenstine, who said, “The first woman and the next man.” Artemis is certainly not your grandfather’s lunar program, suggesting a wider participation by a more diverse group of Americans.  

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 Artemis Artemis budget Artemis program Biden adminitration Bill Nelson Fiscal 2022 Jim Bridenstine Joe Biden lunar base Moon base NASA NASA funding Space travel

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