Senate CJS Appropriators See Artemis as Top NASA Priority

Senate CJS Appropriators See Artemis as Top NASA Priority

The Senate appropriators who fund NASA left no doubt today that the Artemis program is their top priority for the agency. In a friendly hearing, Democrats and Republicans stressed the importance of staying ahead of China in space exploration and keeping Artemis on schedule.

Today’s hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee focused mostly on local issues of interest to whatever Senator was asking the question. Not surprisingly they wanted NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former Senator himself, to commit to supporting activities in their home state. Nelson was agreeable as long as they provide NASA with the requisite resources.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) chairs a Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee hearing on NASA’s FY2025 budget request, May 23, 2024. Screengrab.

Subcommittee chair Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and vice chair Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) along with others emphasized the importance of the Artemis program to ensure China does not overtake the United States in space exploration. That means maintaining schedule, but they also want NASA to avoid cost overruns and hold contractors accountable.

Shaheen asked if NASA should convene an Independent Review Board similar to that created for the James Webb Space Telescope after that program encountered overruns and delays.  Nelson replied “we are constantly having other eyes” on the program with Government Accountability Office (GAO) and NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) reviews.

She did not follow up as to why NASA has IRBs for other programs, like Mars Sample Return, in addition to GAO and OIG reviews, and he kept to his usual explanation that going to the Moon is hard as President John F. Kennedy said at Rice University in 1962.

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), vice chair, Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, at hearing on NASA’s FY2025 request, May 23, 2024, Screengrab.

Asked by Moran if Artemis is “the” priority for NASA, Nelson replied it is “one of the top priorities because of the geopolitical situation that we are in a space race” with China. Moran then wanted to know if Nelson is confident in the new schedule with Artemis II launching in September 2025 and Artemis III a year later.

Artemis I was an uncrewed flight test of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft in 2022. Artemis II will be a crewed flight test around the Moon, but it will not go into orbit. Artemis III is planned to be the mission that lands two NASA astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time since the Apollo program.

Nelson gave his standard answer that NASA will not launch until they are ready. September 2025 for Artemis II is “realistic,” but as for Artemis III, “if we land” in September 2026 depends on whether SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System (HLS) is available.

Obviously September 2026  for Artemis III, which if you think about it, and I want this in the record, Artemis III, if you compare it to the Apollo program, is a combination of Apollo 9, 10 and 11, which was the landing on the Moon, and part of Apollo 8 that orbited the Moon 10 times. It is a difficult task and if we land it is dependent on SpaceX having their lander ready.

Now they have hit all of their milestones. And in a couple of weeks they’re going to launch that huge rocket that has 33 Raptor engines in its tail, and they’re going to do more showing the space worthiness of it. It is my hope that SpaceX will be ready with their lander.  –Bill Nelson

NASA officials have hinted for months that Artemis III might be revamped and not involve a landing. In August 2023, Jim Free, then head of the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate that oversees Artemis, said Artemis III could be a “different mission” if Starship HLS isn’t ready in time. Free since has been promoted to NASA Associate Administrator, the top civil servant position in the agency.

Nelson’s use of the word “if” today in the context of Artemis III landing on the Moon came at the same time Mike Sarafin, NASA’s Artemis III mission manager, reportedly told the Lunar Surface Science Workshop that NASA is focused on a landing mission, but an off-ramp may be considered “if we run into issues.”

Sen. Katie Britt (R-AL), who replaced Sen. Richard Shelby and is a former Shelby staffer, had a nearer-term focus — Artemis II.  NASA is still investigating why the heat shield on the Orion capsule eroded in an unexpected manner on Artemis I.  She asked Nelson if the agency is “properly resourced to address the safety and hardware issues to ensure Artemis II can launch safely and is not further delayed?”

Repeating that NASA will not launch until it is ready, Nelson explained that budgetarily “we are down half a billion dollars,” but “we will make do with that.”

In his opening statement, Nelson reminded the subcommittee that overall NASA was cut $5 billion for FY2024 and FY2025 because of the budget caps in the Fiscal Responsibility Act and that meant he had to make “uncomfortable choices.”  He cited the Mars Sample Return mission and the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing-1 (OSAM-1) project as examples. NASA has sharply reduced funding for MSR while awaiting innovative ideas on how to execute it and wants to terminate OSAM-1.

OSAM-1 is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) quizzed Nelson about the decision to discontinue OSAM-1 despite direction in the FY2024 appropriations bill to submit a plan to launch it in 2026. Nelson replied “within the budget constraints, we are going to do exactly what you required.” He added that NASA is in discussions with DARPA on what technologies developed through OSAM “can be utilized” in this “changing space environment.”

Nelson was pressed about OSAM at the House CJS hearing last month as well. He told Rep. David Trone (D-MD) that an independent review of OSAM concluded the project is 7-8 years behind schedule and the cost has more than doubled from $750 million to $1.6 billion. In the meantime, technology has changed and so has the market.  “In the parlance of the South, this dog doesn’t hunt.”

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