Serrano Worried About Who Will Pay for Accelerating Moon Program

Serrano Worried About Who Will Pay for Accelerating Moon Program

The chairman of a key House appropriations subcommittee today reiterated his doubts about the need for and feasibility of getting astronauts back on the Moon by 2024.  To him, the original 2028 schedule is a better, safer, more cost effective choice. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine did not appear to make any headway convincing him the Trump Administration’s accelerated schedule is a good idea and even said there is no guarantee NASA can do it, only that it is “in the realm of possibility.”

Rep. José Serrano (D-New York)

Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), chairman of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, held a hearing on the Administration’s proposal to move up the deadline for returning to the Moon by four years.

The FY2020 budget proposal submitted to Congress on March 11 was based on NASA’s plan to land in 2028.  Two weeks later, Vice President Pence revealed a new plan — getting there by 2024.  That program now is named Artemis.

By the time the Administration submitted a supplemental request of $1.6 billion to begin paying for Artemis on May 13, the subcommittee was already far along in its deliberations on the CJS bill, which also funds the National Science Foundation and the Departments of Commerce and Justice.  It ignored the supplemental during committee action and when the bill passed the House this summer.

FY2020 began two weeks ago, but Congress is still debating the FY2020 appropriations bills.  NASA and all the other government agencies are operating under a Continuing Resolution until November 21.  Serrano took the time today to hold a hearing on the Artemis proposal.

Serrano already expressed skepticism about the value of moving up the date, which will require an estimated $25 billion over the next five years. At a July hearing with the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Serrano stressed that he supports human spaceflight and returning to the Moon, but not by 2024.

His views have not changed.  Citing NASA officials who have themselves in recent weeks pointed to the difficulty in meeting the 2024 deadline, he again said NASA should stick to 2028.

“We cannot sacrifice quality just to be quick. We cannot sacrifice safety to be fast.  And we cannot sacrifice other government programs just to please the President. … Overall  I remain extremely concerned by the proposed advancement by 4 years of this mission. The eyes of the world are upon us.  We cannot afford to fail. Therefore I believe that it is better to use the original NASA schedule of 2028 in order to have a successful, safe and cost effective mission for the benefit of the American people and the world.” — Rep. José Serrano

A major challenge in winning congressional support for the proposal is that the Administration will not tell Congress how many billions it will cost. All Congress has is the $1.6 billion supplemental request for FY2020, not out-year estimates for the other four years.  The often cited $25 billion number is a rough ballpark. Bridenstine told CNN in July that it could be $20-30 billion on top of what NASA already was planning to request for those years (about $21 billion annually), but later said it could be less than $20 billion depending on how much the private sector pays through public-private partnerships.

Bridenstine said today the Administration simply is not ready to provide a cost estimate. NASA, the National Space Council and the Office of Management and Budget are still debating what level of schedule risk they are willing to take, for example.  It would cost more to fund three companies instead of one to build lunar landers, but increases the risk that the one would encounter schedule delays or cost much more than anticipated.  He insisted today as he has in the past that the Administration will not give Congress a complete cost estimate until the FY2021 budget request is submitted in February 2020.

Serrano made clear that is too late.  “Unless we know what this will cost at the end, it will be irresponsible for us to take the first step.”

Noting this is his last term in Congress (he is not running for reelection because he has Parkinson’s disease), he said he does not want to leave his colleagues with a bill of unknown amount to pay.

The amount of money is not his only concern, but where it comes from.  Bridenstine insists he will not take money from other parts of NASA to pay for Artemis, so what government programs will be cut?  When the White House submitted the $1.6 billion FY2020 supplemental, it offset the funds by cutting Pell Grants in the Department of Education, a very popular program on Capitol Hill that provides financial aid for undergraduates.

This is not just about finding the money, it’s about where this President is known to go to find monies when he needs them. Now if he came to us and said no wall in return for 2024 he might get a few Democrats to agree with that. Right?  Maybe more than that. But he’s probably going to say lower Pell grants. Lower food stamps. Lower education dollars. And that’s not acceptable. And that’s the problem. … I don’t want to go to the Moon by taking money from people who can’t afford to survive in this society to the level that they should survive in this society. That’s a big problem that we have to get over.  — Rep. José Serrano

Bridestine himself was cautious about 2024 saying it is “not a guarantee, but it’s in the realm of what is possible. What we’re asking for in the budget request is to give us an option to make going fast a possibility.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee marked up its CJS bill last month.  It did not provide all the money NASA requested either, especially for lunar landers.  Bridenstine said it also restricted (“fenced”) NASA’s use of the money until NASA provides a full report on the total cost of the program and perhaps “that’s a good solution” to the dilemma.

Serrano was not the only subcommittee member asking about the cost. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-FL) even said he wants to help NASA get to 2024, but needs the cost estimate to do that.  The answer was the same each time.  It will not be submitted until February.

None of the subcommittee members expressed opposition to NASA or human spaceflight or specifically returning to the Moon.  The debate is over cost and timing.

Crist was not the only member expressing support for 2024. Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), the top Republican on the full committee, sat in on the hearing today, which is unusual.  She is especially concerned that China may take the lead in space if the United States does not proceed with Artemis.  Bridenstine mentioned China’s robotic Chang’e-4 spacecraft that landed on the far of the Moon earlier this year as an indication of China’s interest in lunar exploration, but also said that China is not expected to send people to the Moon until 2030.

The top Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Robert Aderholt, who represents a district near Marshall Space Flight Center, expressed his strong support for 2024 and even asked whether NASA is still committed to achieving that goal “by any means necessary” as directed by Pence in March. Marshall is managing development of NASA’s new big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and acquisition of the lunar landers.  As an avid supporter of SLS, he questioned NASA’s interest in using commercial rockets rather than SLS to launch elements of the Artemis program.

Right now, NASA will use SLS only to launch astronauts to the Gateway in lunar orbit where lunar landers will be docked to take them down to the surface.  The landers and Gateway elements will be launched by commercial rockets.

The Boeing-built SLS is far behind schedule.  NASA originally committed to the first flight — an uncrewed test flight — in November 2018, but that slipped to December 2019-June 2020 and now has been delayed probably to 2021. NASA’s current goal is to produce three of them by 2024: one for the uncrewed test flight, one for a crewed test flight around the Moon in 2022 or 2023, and one to take the lunar landing crew to the Gateway in 2024.

Nonetheless, SLS advocates want it to be used for much more and, in fact, argue that it could launch everything needed for Artemis and commercial rockets are not necessary. Aderholt said industry sources told him two per year could be produced by 2024 and an upgraded version using a more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) also could be ready by 2024.  Bridenstine and Ken Bowersox, the acting head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), were highly skeptical that more than three can be ready in that time frame.

Bridenstine also announced that Doug Loverro will become the new head of HEOMD.  Bowersox has been serving in an acting capacity since July when Bridenstine dismissed Bill Gerstenmaier. Bowersox was the deputy associate administrator for HEOMD and now will resume that position.

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.