Bridenstine Optimistic About Full HLS Funding

Bridenstine Optimistic About Full HLS Funding

NASA released a report today updating its plans for the early phase of the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will testify to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday about the agency’s FY2021 request for a 12 percent increase to start paying for Artemis, hoping it will get more support than in the House. Bridenstine also clarified that the landing site for the first mission remains the South Pole, and whether or not the Gateway will be used for Artemis III is undecided.

During a media telecon today, Bridenstine expressed optimism that when all is said and done, the final FY2021 appropriations bill will include the full amount requested for the Human Landing Systems (HLS) that will take astronauts down to and back from the lunar surface. According to NASA’s budget documentation, the request is $3,369.8 million, although today’s report shows $3,222.5 million.

The House-passed Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds NASA, provided only $628 million and held the total amount for the agency at this year’s level — $22.6 billion instead of the $25.2 billion requested by the Trump Administration.

Acknowledging that FY2021 will begin next week with a Continuing Resolution (CR) holding the agency to its current funding level until sometime in December, Bridenstine is confident that by the end of the year Congress will pass an omnibus bill funding all government agencies and the full request for HLS will be included. For that to happen, he must convince Senators at Wednesday’s hearing and through the rest of the Senate process, and they will have to sway their House counterparts during negotiations on the final bill.

Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate support the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon and going on to Mars. The dispute primarily is over timing. NASA had been working towards a 2028 return to the Moon, but last year the Trump White House accelerated the schedule by four years, to 2024, so it would happen during a second Trump term if he is reelected. That added a political element to what has been a bipartisan effort.

Bridenstine defends the 2024 date as reducing political risk by accomplishing the goal within a single president’s tenure, noting that previous attempts failed when administrations changed. But the funding requirements to do a crash program can induce sticker shock.

The report released today shows a total of $28 billion needed for Artemis from FY2021-2025. That is on top of all of NASA’s other programs in human spaceflight, earth and space science, space technology and aeronautics research. HLS alone is $16 billion.

Bridenstine said 2024 still could be met if the full $3.2 billion HLS funding is provided by the end of this year. If the timing slips to March, it “becomes more difficult, but it is still within the realm of possibility.” If delayed beyond March, it “becomes increasingly more difficult.” Beyond that, it will become a matter of getting back to the Moon “at the earliest possible opportunity” rather than 2024. But he is confident Congress will come through.

“I want to be clear that I really think that when the omnibus appropriations is complete, I really believe there will be $3.2 billion for a human landing system.”

HLS is being procured as a public-private partnership where both the government and private sector partners invest in developing the systems. The companies retain ownership and NASA guarantees to purchase a certain amount of services in return. It is the same model NASA used for the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems that support the International Space Station.

Three companies won 10-month contracts in April to refine their HLS concepts. NASA will choose one or two of them to proceed into development early next year. Two of the three, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are owned by space enthusiast billionaires — Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos respectively. Bezos, who owns, is the wealthiest man in the world with a net worth of over $200 billion according to Forbes.

Asked if the companies might put up a bigger stake if government funding is less than anticipated, Bridenstine agreed it is “something that needs to be seriously considered” but “I’ll leave that to them to make that determination.”  Kathy Lueders, who until three months ago managed the commercial crew program and now is the head of all human spaceflight at NASA, added that she has seen what companies can do using these types of public-private procurements and is looking forward to seeing what they propose.

The report lays out a roadmap for the early years of Artemis, mostly the first three Artemis missions: Artemis I, a test flight without a crew; Artemis II, a test flight with a crew; and Artemis III, the mission that will land astronauts on the surface.

Bridenstine responded to stories in the media over the past week about comments he and Lueders made that appeared to hint NASA might be reconsidering whether or not Artemis III will land at the Moon’s South Pole.

“To be clear, we’re going to the South Pole,” he proclaimed.

The crisp answer settles Bridenstine’s intent, but it is interesting that the report mentions the South Pole only in the context of setting up a Base Camp there in the post-Artemis III phase of sustainable lunar exploration. It says “the exact landing site for Artemis III astronauts depends on several factors, including the specific science objectives and the launch date.”

Another question that arose recently is whether the Gateway, a small space station that will orbit the Moon, will be used for the Artemis III landing. Until March 2020 it was, but then it wasn’t. Now NASA says no decision has been made.

That is reflected in the report and Bridenstine said today that the decision is up to the HLS contractors.

Originally the HLS systems were to be based at the Gateway. The astronauts would travel from Earth in an Orion spacecraft, dock at Gateway, transfer into an HLS, travel down to the surface and back to Gateway, transfer back into Orion and return to Earth.

That is still the long term plan for the sustainable phase of the Artemis program and Bridenstine insisted today that Gateway is “critically important” for that phase.

For the first landing, however, NASA decided early this spring that Gateway was no longer mandatory and would not be used.  The HLS systems for that mission were to dock directly with Orion. Now Bridenstine says the HLS contractors can choose to use Gateway or not.  “I really think it would be premature for me to say how our commercial providers are going to the Moon. … I think we as an agency have to fight the urge to be prescriptive with them.”

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