Senate Hearing Offers No Hints on Prospect for Artemis Funding

Senate Hearing Offers No Hints on Prospect for Artemis Funding

A much anticipated Senate appropriations committee hearing today offered no hint on what it may recommend for NASA’s Artemis program to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024. The House approved much less than requested for development of landing systems to take astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface and back. NASA needs the Senate to come through with the full amount requested for FY2021.

Under White House direction, NASA is trying to get American astronauts back on the Moon by 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency if he is reelected in November.

Setting aside the technical challenges, it’s expensive. A NASA report released earlier this week estimated the cost at $28 billion for the next 5 years, FY2021-2025, on top of everything else NASA does. The Human Landing Systems (HLS) are $16 billion of that total.

NASA is requesting $3.2 billion for HLS in FY2021. (The February budget request shows $3.37 billion, but the new NASA report says $3.22 billion.)

The House-passed FY2021 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill provides just $628 million, however.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine constantly expresses appreciation for the bipartisan support that led to at least that amount, but makes no secret that the full $3.2 billion is needed no later than March 2021 if the 2024 goal is to be met.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed until today the usual hearing by the Senate Appropriations CJS Subcommittee on NASA’s budget request.  Despite the pandemic and searing divisiveness in the Senate over the timing of replacing the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the hearing followed familiar, congenial lines with most Senators focused on parochial interests.

Subcommittee chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Ranking Member Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) clearly are NASA supporters, but across all of NASA’s programs, not just human spaceflight.

Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee socially-distanced hearing on NASA’s budget, September 23, 2020. Senators Moran and Shaheen are at the top of the image. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s arm and bottle of Mountain Dew are visible at the bottom. Screengrab.


NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testifying to the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee, September 23, 2020. Screengrab.

NASA is requesting $25.2 billion for FY2021, a 12 percent increase over FY2020, to begin paying for Artemis, but the request also calls for terminating or delaying about $1 billion in activities known to be congressional priorities in earth and space science, STEM education, and an upgraded version of the Space Launch System (SLS). The Administration proposes those cuts year after year and Congress rejects them every time.

The House rejected them again this year and one clear message that came through today is that the Senate will, too.  In fact, one of the programs proposed for termination is the Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST) and Bridenstine went so far as to assert that NASA is committed to building it despite the Administration’s attempts to zero the funding. That alone is about $500 million in FY2021.

What remains unknown is whether the Senate will add money above the $25.2 billion request to pay for them or reduce spending elsewhere in NASA’s request to make up the difference.

That is what the House did and the biggest cut was to HLS. It did not disagree with the goal of returning American astronauts to the Moon, only the timeline for doing it.  Overall, it held NASA to its FY2020 funding level of $22.6 billion.

Bridenstine said during a media telecon on Tuesday that to meet the 2024 deadline, NASA needs the full $3.2 billion for HLS no later than March 2021.

That would be just the beginning. NASA says HLS will need $3.553 billion in FY2022 and $4.100 billion in FY2023. The curve bends downward in FY2024 to $3.571 billion in FY2024 and $1.719 billion in FY2025. The landing is intended to take place at the end of calendar year 2024, which is the first quarter of FY2025.

That is the end of Phase I of the Artemis program, but the beginning of Phase 2 — “sustainable” lunar operations with no end date.

The FY2021 HLS funding is for development of the landing systems, which are being procured as Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) where the contractors are supposed to invest their own money, too. They retain ownership of the systems, while NASA purchases services as it does for the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs that support the International Space Station (ISS). It is possible they might come up with more money themselves if the congressional funding is less than required. On Tuesday Bridenstine said that needs to be “seriously considered,” but he will leave it up to the companies to determine.

NASA selected three HLS proposals on April 30 for further concept definition — Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX —  and plans to downselect to a smaller number in February 2021 to proceed into development. How many is an open question. NASA often talks about selecting two so they remain in competition, increasing the chances they will constrain costs and keep on schedule. That is the model NASA followed for the ISS commercial cargo and commercial crew programs.

Today Moran asked why NASA could not pick just one, but Bridenstine urged that he be allowed to keep the competition going.

It’s premature to say, sir, at this point whether it’s going to be three or two or one. I will tell you, and this is a concern to me, I worry about going down to one.  And I’ll tell you why. Because when you eliminate competition you end up with programs that inevitably get dragged out and you end up with cost overruns and schedule delays. — Jim Bridenstine

Moran also asked whether an uncrewed test flight of the HLS systems is a requirement. Bridenstine replied not necessarily. The agency needs to see what the companies propose as their risk mitigation strategies.

Moran said today’s hearing is the first in a series he plans “with NASA and others” on Artemis and its potential impact on the nation. No timeline was announced.

Separately, late this afternoon the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committees, which authorizes NASA activities, announced a hearing next week. Authorization committees set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriators have money to spend.

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.