- The Trump administration wants NASA to land astronauts on the moon within five years rather than by 2028, as previously planned.
- Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said on Monday that the space agency needs a $1.6 billion "down payment" in 2020 to carry out such a moon mission.
- Bridenstine added on Tuesday that the sum is on "the low end" of the funding required to build new rockets, spaceships, and moon landers.
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The Trump administration is pushing NASA to launch astronauts back to the moon within five years, but the space agency says it needs more cash, and soon, to achieve that ambitious goal.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Monday that the space agency needs a $1.6 billion "down payment" from Congress to make a 2024 crewed moon landing work. Bridenstine announced the budget request on Monday in a video sent to NASA employees.
"This investment is a down payment on NASA’s efforts and will allow us to move forward with design, development, and exploration" of the moon, he said. "We are going."
NASA also published a one-page summary of an amendment to its 2020 fiscal year budget. The document outlines $1.55 billion in new spending, plus reallocating $321 million away from other, more distant plans in order to build a lunar space station.
Previously, the Trump administration’s goal was to return to the moon by 2028 (part of a plan called Space Policy Directive-1). The administration now wants NASA to instead land astronauts on the lunar surface four years earlier, in 2024 — but that appears to be a $1.87 billion shift.
"The [Trump] administration came to us and said, ‘What does it take to get to the moon in 2024? And what do you need in the year 2020?’" Bridenstine said on Tuesday during the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, DC. "We are at the low end of what we think it takes to accomplish this."
What the $1.6 billion boost would do for NASA
The rejiggering of NASA funding would direct $1 billion toward a lunar landing system, in hopes of moving up its timeline by at least three years. Instead of developing the system in-house, the agency is looking for pitches from private companies.
"The way we are procuring that is commercial in nature," Bridenstine said. "We’re going to get proposals from industry."
That effort, announced in April, is called NextSTEP appendix H. The program is a competition intended to spur companies to propose three-part systems for landing humans on the moon.
The first part involves a transfer vehicle (perhaps something like an Apollo command module) that can connect to a planned "Gateway" lunar space station. Once in lunar orbit, astronauts would crawl inside a lander attached to the transfer vehicle, then descend to the moon. After their mission on the surface is complete, an ascent module (on top of the lander) would rocket the astronauts back to the transfer vehicle, later returning them to the Gateway.
NASA intended to have a detailed solicitation for the three-part system by the end of May, but that timeline is delayed. The agency has not yet announced the date when it would select a system, the amount of money it’s prepared to award, or other details.
"While we’re accelerating our acquisition timelines for all activities supporting landing humans on the moon in 2024, I don’t have a specific deadline on when we will select at the moment," a NASA spokesperson told Business Insider in an email. "We are targeting the end of June to allow for better requirements definition."
NASA’s new budget boost and shift would also add $651 million to the budget of Space Launch System (SLS), a towering rocket designed to launch spacecraft to the moon, as well as Orion, a crew capsule to ferry astronauts there.
"We have to have the Space Launch System. That is an absolute critical capability to get humans to the moon," Bridenstine said. (SLS is currently behind-schedule and over-budget.)
NASA’s budget amendment also asks for $90 million to scout the moon’s poles for landing sites, and for $132 million to develop "exploration technologies" that could, say, melt ice on the moon then split the resulting water into hydrogen and oxygen fuels for rockets.
"When we master these things on the moon, then we will be able to take them to Mars," Bridenstine said on Tuesday.
Jeff Bezos unveiled a lunar lander that he thinks NASA could use
Dave Mosher/Business Insider
Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, who founded a spaceflight company called Blue Origin, announced his plans last week to build a giant "Blue Moon" lunar lander for NASA.
"This is an incredible vehicle, and it’s going to the moon," Bezos said, pointing to a life-size model during an event in Washington, DC on Thursday.
Bezos said Blue Origin is poised to meet NASA’s 2024 goal of getting people back to the lunar surface.
"We can help meet that timeline, but only because we started three years ago," he said. "It’s time to go back to the moon, and this time to stay."
Lockheed Martin also appears ready to compete for the task of getting astronauts to the moon in 2024, though by paring down and changing up the concept it had been working on for NASA’s original plan. The company told Space News that a budget increase is necessary to "start bending metal" in 2020 and complete a crewed round trip to the moon with some reasonable expectation of safety in 2024.
The new money that NASA is asking for is anything but guaranteed, though. Federal budget appropriators in Congress can tweak or deny the request.
Bridenstine also acknowledged that Congress could very well reach an impasse over a new federal budget and instead sign a continuing resolution, in which case NASA would get the same amount it was allocated in 2019.
"If Congress comes in with a lower number, the probability of success goes down and the risk goes up," he said. "Can we do it? I don’t know."
Bridenstine also signaled that even more money would be needed later on, saying that the 2020 budget amendment is just the beginning of a "bell curve" ramp-ups in funding requests.
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