Serrano Supports Astronauts on the Moon, But Not by 2024

Serrano Supports Astronauts on the Moon, But Not by 2024

Rep. José Serrano (D-NY) today made clear that although he supports the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon, he does not see a need to accelerate NASA’s efforts in order to meet a 2024 deadline.  Calling the White House’s proposal to move up the date arbitrary, he expressed concern that spending the money to get to the Moon sooner would be detrimental to other programs across the government.

On March 26, Vice President Pence directed NASA to put astronauts at the South Pole of the Moon by 2024, the end of a second Trump term if the President is reelected.  NASA was planning to do that in 2028.  The Moon-by-2024 program is now named Artemis.  The Trump Administration submitted a supplemental budget request of $1.6 billion to begin paying for the accelerated program on top of its original FY2020 budget request of $21 billion.

Serrano chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA.  In its version of the FY2020 appropriations bill, which passed the House in June, the committee ignored the supplemental request.  It did significantly increase NASA’s budget, adding $1.3 billion on top of the original request, but it is mostly for science and education programs.  The bill passed the House on June 25. The committee’s report on the bill criticizes NASA for prioritizing human spaceflight over science and education.  The Trump Administration’s FY2020 request called for terminating two Earth science programs (PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder) and the next large space telescope (WFIRST), and eliminating NASA’s education office.

The $1.6 billion is just a “downpayment” on the total cost of accelerating the program.  It does not include what NASA already was planning to spend on getting back to the Moon.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine estimated in June that the additional cost would be on the order of $20-30 billion on top of NASA’s projected budget of about $21 billion per year. Recently he lowered that estimate to less than $20 billion, but at a Senate hearing last week acknowledged that the cost actually is unknown and dependent on a number of factors such as how much the commercial sector will contribute through public-private partnerships.  He said the Administration will not be able to tell Congress the cost until the FY2021 budget is submitted next February.

At a hearing on oversight of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) today, Serrano told OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier that he disagrees with spending a lot of money to “unnecessarily speed up by just four years the schedule for returning American astronauts to the Moon. Arbitrarily changing the schedule will have grave consequences for other vital programs across science fields and other programs across the government.”  He strongly supports NASA and “a continued human presence in space,” but not spending more than $20 billion to speed up a return to the Moon.

He asked Droegemeier if it is “technically possible, financially responsible, or necessary, to launch the manned Moon mission four years early at an additional $20 billion cost just to meet a geopolitical deadline.”

Droegemeier largely demurred, saying NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is more knowledgeable about the “complicated ecosystem” of issues involved, but it is a presidential priority tied in with the goal of sending humans to Mars.

With the reestablishment of the White House National Space Council, OSTP’s role in civil space policy is more limited than in prior years, but Droegemeier is a member of the Space Council.

Bridenstine explains the 2024 deadline as “political risk reduction” to accomplish the goal within a single president’s tenure to avoid the risk that a new president might change course as has happened in the past.  Others, however, paint it as a race with China, which may have prompted Serrano’s reference to a geopolitical deadline.

Bridenstine tweeted photos of recent meetings he has had with members of Congress, including Serrano, about Artemis.

Serrano apparently remains unconvinced.  “This is a big ask at a difficult time,” he told Droegemeier. “What can we gain other than to claim we were there first this time around?”  He repeatedly stressed his support for human spaceflight overall, however.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Ranking Member of the subcommittee, sounded a more positive note.  “I’m very encouraged about what NASA’s mission is and our ability to go back to the Moon in the very near future. I think we can do that and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that happens.”  NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which will launch astronauts to the Moon, is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, close to Aderholt’s district.

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.