Now that the Trump administration is retiring in defeat, it is clear that the deadline for 2024 will not be met and was probably never an achievable goal despite having supported the White House and a massive lobbying effort by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
To meet the White House mandate that moved up to the 2028 lunar landing, Bridenstine had said the agency would need $ 3.3 billion in next year’s budget to build the first spacecraft capable of landing astronauts on the moon since the Apollo era in the 1
Congress came through – but with $ 850 million, far from the full request. And so now the 2024 target will most likely not be met.
“To reach the 2024 goal, everything in the order that led to it had to go right,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “And in programs like this, it usually does not happen.”
The 2024 deadline has “been dead for a while, I’m not sure it ever lived,” he said. “That was what we call in the trade, an ambitious goal.” Still, he said the effort has galvanized an agency that has not returned to the moon’s surface since the last Apollo mission in 1972 and has only recently resumed flying astronauts from U.S. soil to Earth.
“It gave NASA and its contractors the energy to focus more intensely on what they were doing,” Logsdon said.
Amid a tumultuous election, rebellion against the Capitol and a deadly pandemic, Biden has said nothing about his plans for the space program. The transition team has not yet announced who it will appoint as administrator, though Democrats have said it will likely be the first woman ever to fill the position. During Biden, the agency will focus more on earth science, party officials said, noting that its party platform says: “We support NASA’s efforts to bring Americans back to the moon and beyond Mars and take the next step in exploring our solar system. ”
In an interview, Bridenstine, who is stepping down from NASA on Jan. 20, would not declare the 2024 deadline dead yet, though he said NASA “given the lack of funding” will have to go back to the drawing board. “
Yet the Artemis program is “on solid ground. It’s true that we did not get every single dollar we requested, and that makes us reconsider what the plan ultimately looks like, ”he said. “But the fact that Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate in the middle of a very challenging year said we want to fund a $ 850 million human landing system is a solid victory.”
In addition to lobbying lawmakers, Bridenstine has successfully convicted several international partners in the effort, such as Japan, Australia and Canada, which commit to resources and sign a document known as the Artemis Agreements, which governs behavior on and around the moon. A broad international coalition, such as the one that controls the International Space Station, will provide continuity from one administration to the next, said Wayne Hale, a former NASA aviation director who now chairs an advisory committee.
“This administration has very cleverly implemented the Artemis agreements, which bind us with other nations,” he said. “And I think that will continue to motivate the administration that follows to continue that project.”
NASA has also highlighted the astronauts who would fly on the Artemis missions – giving a face to the program and a hint of who the first woman to go to the moon may be. But there are still several challenges that the Biden administration will inherit.
The Space Launch System, NASA’s massive rocket that would fly astronauts to the moon, has never flown. And while in recent months it has made significant progress, over the years it has suffered many setbacks and delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns. If all goes well at a major test of its engines on Saturday, the rocket’s first flight, known as Artemis I, is expected to arrive late this year and propel the Orion spacecraft without astronauts aboard a mission around the moon. Then it all goes, it will then put an crew of astronauts in orbit around the moon for Artemis II before Artemis III lands.
Given that the rocket is a massive, complex rocket, the most powerful ever built, and has never flown before, the current schedule may be very optimistic.
NASA announces without any doubt that Artemis I, II and III will go without problems. If you look at the SLS, it’s a very complicated rocket, ”said Homer Hickam, author and a member of the National Space Council’s advisory committee. “The odds are that it will not work perfectly at the first launch. And if it does not work perfectly, do you really need to put a crew on a second time? ”
NASA has already awarded nearly $ 1 billion in contracts to three companies for the first evolution of spacecraft capable of landing astronauts on the moon’s surface. A team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper, won $ 579 million, the largest amount. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Dynetics, which partnered with Sierra Nevada Corp., was awarded $ 253 million and Elon Musk’s SpaceX received $ 135 million.
These contracts expire in February, and the second phase, in which NASA is expected to eliminate at least one of the bidders and continue with the others, would come shortly after. But some fear it will be delayed as Democrats join and evaluate NASA’s programs.
Bridenstine said delays could hamper the momentum of the program and that he hoped it would not happen.
“I do not think it would be in the interest of the agency or the program,” he said. “I have not heard, that is what they are planning to do. But the goal is to go fast. How to create a successful application. ”
Although the contracts are not delayed, he said the agency will have to reconsider the 2024 timeline: “I think it’s important to give the team time to assess what the future may look like.”