House Committee Presses NASA for Artemis Plan

House Committee Presses NASA for Artemis Plan

Members of the House committee that oversees NASA pressed Administrator Bill Nelson today for a commitment on when they will get to see a plan for how the Artemis program will be executed.  Nelson is new to the job, but the answer was the same as his predecessors: not yet. For his part, Nelson repeatedly reminded the committee that how quickly astronauts return to the Moon is in their hands since they decide how much money is available.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson testifying to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, June 23, 2021. Screengrab.

NASA has been working on the Artemis program since 2019 although development of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew spacecraft date back to 2011 and 2006.

Artemis is intended to return astronauts to the Moon to begin a sustainable program of lunar exploration and exploitation that leads to putting humans on Mars. NASA has piles of Powerpoint slides showing how the early missions will unfold, but not a detailed plan for those and later missions.

Currently Artemis I, a test flight of SLS with an uncrewed Orion, is scheduled for launch this November, though Nelson concedes the date could slip because “space is hard,” a favorite phrase he uses when discussing other Artemis dates as well.  Artemis II, a test flight with a crew flying around the Moon but not landing, would take place in 2023. The first landing would be on Artemis III in 2024.

All of those dates are tentative and the one that generates the most controversy is 2024. Widely panned as unrealistic since then-Vice President Mike Pence announced it in March 2019, the space community was taken by surprise when the Biden Administration decided to keep it.

While strongly supportive of Artemis overall, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, is one of the most vocal skeptics of the date.  A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report buttressed her position.

Johnson reiterated her concerns at the hearing today. Successfully executing Artemis requires “clear goals and objectives, thoughtful planning, realistic scheduling, a credible organizational and management structure, and attention to the multitude of details that spell the difference between success and catastrophic failure.”

The lessons of the past are clear: failing to uncover problems because of arbitrary schedule pressure invariably winds up costing more in both money and delays, and in increased risk. If Congress is going to be asked to provide increased funding for Artemis, it first will need to have confidence that NASA’s Artemis initiative is on a credible path to success.

Johnson and others want to see a detailed plan, which they’ve requested many times to no avail. Noting that Nelson often paints the United States as being in a race with China, she agreed China is doing a lot, but that does not mean the United States should rush ahead without a clear plan.

China clearly is in space for the long term and we need to recognize that and respond accordingly. To me that doesn’t mean undertaking a crash program with unrealistic timetables, but it does mean that in human spaceflight NASA needs to focus its efforts and develop a clear plan and program to achieve these goals….

NASA needs to develop that plan and program now because there are not unlimited resources and we really can’t afford to pursue nice-to-have projects at the price of neglecting essential tasks.

To date the committee has not seen such a plan for the Artemis initiative and it is not because we haven’t asked for it. .. What can we expect to see and when can we expect to see the plan?

Nelson replied:  “August the 4th, Madam Chairman.”

That is when the Government Accountability Office (GAO) must decide on two protests of NASA’s contract award to SpaceX to build a Human Landing System (HLS) to take crews from lunar orbit down to and back from the lunar surface. Whether GAO decides in favor of NASA or the protestors (Blue Origin and Dynetics) will have a significant effect on the program’s schedule.

“I will have a plan to announce, according to what their decision is, to have us there as quickly and as safely and as efficiently as possible,” Nelson asserted.

During the course of the hearing other members asked the same question and Nelson backed away from August 4 specifically, saying more generally it would be after the GAO decision but before the end of the year.

Nelson tried to divert attention from 2024 by pointing out that NASA will return to the Moon in 2023 on Artemis II. That is a return only to the lunar vicinity, however, not to the surface.

The alleged “Moon race” with China featured prominently in the hearing even though last week China and Russia laid out their joint plan of lunar exploration. It does not envision putting humans on the Moon until the mid-2030s. The committee was either unaware of or chose to ignore it. Nelson often talks about China’s “aggressive” space program and today went so far as to say competition is getting “the juices flowing,” so a race fits that narrative.

A veteran politician who served on this very committee while a member of the House (1979-1991) and chaired its space subcommittee for six years (during which time he flew on the 1986 STS 61-C space shuttle mission), and later spent 18 years in the Senate (2001-2019), Nelson repeatedly reminded the committee that Congress plays a big role in determining when the United States gets back to the Moon and on to Mars.

NASA is requesting $24.7 billion for FY2022. Some Republicans criticized the Biden Administration’s request because it is less than the Trump Administration projected in its final budget proposal last year, but Nelson quickly retorted that Congress did not fund NASA at the level Trump requested for FY2021. The Biden request is a 6.3 percent increase over what Congress appropriated.

Asked if there is enough money to pay for Artemis without cutting other programs, Nelson said yes “if we are the beneficiary of your generosity.”

Nelson sees the pending jobs/infrastructure bill as the solution. He is seeking an additional $11.575 billion in the jobs bill on top of the $24.7 billion budget request, of which $5.4 billion would be for HLS.

The Senate passed a NASA Authorization bill earlier this month (as part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act) authorizing $10 billion over 5 years to pay for a second HLS contractor, but that is only an authorization, not an appropriation, and has only passed the Senate.

In answer to questions about where the money will come from to pay for a second HLS contractor, Nelson firmly replied “that’s up to you.” As he knows not only from the Constitution, but decades of personal experience.

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