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Bridenstine: No Cost Estimate for Moon 2024 Yet, But Won’t Be $8 Billion Per Year

Bridenstine: No Cost Estimate for Moon 2024 Yet, But Won’t Be $8 Billion Per Year

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine acknowledged at a congressional hearing today that the Trump Administration still does not have a cost estimate for achieving the Moon 2024 goal.  However, he disputed a news report that it will require an increase of $8 billion per year, insisting it will not be even close to that.  He also continued to stress that sustainability and partnerships are key elements of this latest attempt to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon.

Bridenstine testified to the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee in what was a largely friendly and brief hearing this afternoon.  It lasted less than 45 minutes because Senators needed to leave to cast votes on the Senate floor.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testifying to the Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee, May 1,2019 (with Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard sitting behind him). Screengrab.

That was enough time, however, for Bridenstine to inform the committee that a revised budget request reflecting the March 26 directive by Vice President Pence to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024 instead of 2028 is not ready yet.

“We are not in a position right now to say what that budget number is or necessarily where the Administration is interested in that money coming from.”

NASA put together a “pretty good” proposal that went to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and National Space Council. They are now working together to come up with a “unified Administration position” to present to Congress.

He pushed back against a report in Ars Technica yesterday that it would be a huge amount of money, however.

“I read an article this morning that indicated it was $8 billion additional money per year for the next 5 years.  I will tell you that is not accurate.  It is nowhere close to that amount.”

He declined to offer any other number, however.  Instead, he characterized it as a “surge” in funding needed to move forward work that was to take place in the 2025-2028 time frame.  The basic plan of using the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion to get astronauts to a Gateway in lunar orbit and from there down to and back from the surface remains the same. A sustainable program with international and commercial partners also is unchanged.

What has changed is the need for money to build the landing system sooner.  He did not mention it, but money will also be needed for lunar spacesuits.  At a meeting yesterday, Bill Gerstenmaier acknowledged that there are no lunar spacesuits now, only concepts, but insisted NASA will have them before 2024.  They will not be useful for extended operations, “but that’s a tradeoff for getting there early.”  Gerstenmaier is the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, challenged Bridenstine on recent statements that criticized SLS, which is experiencing more schedule delays.  Bridenstine told a different Senate committee in March that NASA was looking at commercial alternatives to SLS, but later conceded that its assessment concluded no other launch vehicle could do the job at less cost or more quickly.  Bridenstine since has expressed nothing but solid support for SLS, as he did in response to Shelby’s questioning.  SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Shelby’s home state.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) was the only Senator who expressed reticence about the Moon 2024 plan, arguing that decisions should be driven by “science, not political calendars.”  Bridenstine defended the new schedule on the basis that while NASA is good at retiring technical risk, political risk grows with the passage of time.  “The faster we go, the more likely it is that we can realize the end state.”  Van Hollen parried that the question Congress faces is “what are the opportunity costs of changing the schedule, what impact would that have on other priorities.”

On other issues, Shelby bored in on the investigation of the SpaceX Crew Dragon anomaly.  He said the capsule was “destroyed,” a fact that neither NASA nor SpaceX have confirmed publicly.  Shelby has been a harsh critic of SpaceX and he wanted to know if NASA was doing an independent investigation with the results made public.  Bridenstine replied that NASA and SpaceX are working “side-by-side.” Shelby pointed out that is not “strictly independent” and Bridenstine agreed.  Shelby insisted that he does not think that is the norm in such incidents and vowed to check it out.

Other Senators expressed support for programs the Trump Administration wants to terminate (education, the PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder Earth science missions, the WFIRST space telescope) or restructure (RESTORE-L) and asked questions directly related to specific constituent interests.

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