Another Senate Hearing, But Still No Clue on Likely Fate of Artemis Funding

Another Senate Hearing, But Still No Clue on Likely Fate of Artemis Funding

The Senate committee that authorizes NASA activities met today, but like a Senate appropriations hearing last week, offered no clue as to the strength of support for providing NASA with the money needed to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024. The goal of returning Americans to the lunar surface has substantial bipartisan support, but as in the House, coming up with an extra $28 billion over the next 5 years to meet a politically-inspired deadline is a challenge.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) at Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing September 30, 2020. Screengrab.

The Trump Administration directed NASA to accelerate its plans to return humans to the Moon by four years, from 2028 to 2024, so it would occur during a second Trump term if he is reelected in November. The long term goal is a “sustainable” lunar presence, not a one-time landing, and 2028 became that date.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committees, opened today’s hearing by acknowledging the 2024 deadline to land “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon and establish a sustainable presence by 2028, but went on to say that “members need confidence in NASA’s long term plan.”

While noting his committee approved a NASA authorization bill last fall that demonstrated “strong support” for Artemis, that bill, S. 2800, is silent on the timeframe for getting back to the Moon. It also has not passed the Senate almost a year after it cleared committee.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) at Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing September 30, 2020. Screengrab.

Wicker did not offer an update on its status, but Ranking Member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said the co-sponsors have agreed on a plan to move forward and “I hope the Senate will consider this important bill this year.”

The House version, H.R. 5666, has been approved only at subcommittee level and has many differences with the Senate’s, so the outlook for a bill clearing Congress before the end of the 116th Congress is iffy. Bridenstine said an authorization bill would be “very important” and “meaningful” to NASA by demonstrating bipartisan support and a long term commitment.

Authorization bills do not provide funding, however. That is the province of appropriations bills. At press time, the Senate had just passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating past midnight when FY2020 ends. It is awaiting signature by the President. The CR funds NASA and other government agencies at their current funding levels through December 11. Bridenstine is particularly concerned about getting the $3.2 billion needed in FY2021 to begin development of Human Landing Systems (HLS) to get astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface and back, but he told Wicker the program would be OK as long as the money was appropriated by February.

Cantwell is “very enthusiastic” about Artemis.  One reason is that it will put the first woman on the Moon.  The other is more parochial.

I am looking forward to watching Americans exit the Lunar Lander, which will be built in the state of Washington, and step onto the surface of the Moon for the first time in more than 40 years. — Sen. Maria Cantwell

Blue Origin, headquartered in Washington, is one of the three companies that won 10-month NASA contracts to refine their designs. NASA plans to choose one or two to proceed into development in February, which is why the FY2021 money is needed by then. The other two are Dynetics and SpaceX.

Like Wicker, she emphasized that NASA’s other missions also are critical to the country.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, at Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing September 30, 2020. Screengrab.

Apart from HLS, the two other programs essential to Artemis are the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft, both of which have been funded for years. The core stage for the first SLS rocket is currently undergoing a series of “Green Run” tests at Stennis Space Center in Wicker’s state of Mississippi. A “hot fire” test where all four engines are fired for the full 8-minute duration they will need to reach orbit is the last in the series. The date for that test has slipped most recently because of work stoppages due to hurricanes and COVID-19. Bridenstine said today the hot fire test will “likely” take place in November, enabling the launch of the first Artemis mission one year later. That is an uncrewed test flight of the SLS rocket and Orion.

The tenor of the hearing, both between Republicans and Democrats and between Senators and Bridenstine, was quite friendly. Towards the end, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) asked Bridenstine what NASA needs to continue exploring space.

Bridenstine picked the need to fund NASA’s “LEO commercialization” efforts to facilitate private companies building commercial space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO) to succeed the International Space Station (ISS). He has been repeatedly making the point that ISS will not last forever. It is about to celebrate its 20th anniversary of permanent human occupancy and some of the modules have been in orbit longer than that. Reiterating what he told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, investments are needed now for “what happens next.”  NASA does not want to build another space station, but to be one of many customers of commercial space stations. Last year NASA requested $150 million for its LEO commercialization project, but Congress appropriated only $15 million. It is again asking for $150 million for FY2021.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.