The clock is ticking down on whether NASA will get the funding it needs to land the first woman on the moon by 2024.
The mission, known as the Artemis program, hinges on $3.2 billion for a human landing system tha
t NASA requested as part of the 2021 fiscal year budget, which begins Oct. 1.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified before the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday to make his case before time runs out.
"Anything this committee can do to help us get those resources is critically important," Bridenstine said.
In July, the House of Representatives released a bill that kept NASA’s funding flat and did not approve the $3.2 billion, but instead earmarked $600 million for the human landing system. "We’re very grateful for that I want to be clear. I will also tell you that that’s not enough to achieve the 2024 moon landing," Bridenstine testified.
NASA is seeking a 12% increase for 2021 for a total budget of $25.2 billion, which covers a range of programs and projects in human spaceflight, space science, education, and technology development.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, expressed concern over cutting money for education, Earth sciences and heliophysics in favor of a "single moonshot." Part of the goal of the Artemis program is to become a jumping off point to deep-space exploration, including missions to Mars. In response to Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas questioning the ambitious 2024 timeline, Bridenstine stressed that "the faster you go the less it costs."
He explained that if the development of a program goes on too long, it gets too expensive and risks getting
cancelled. Bridenstine cited NASA’s international and commercial partners that will help drive down costs.
Mohan also wanted to know about milestone deadlines to achieve the 2024 goal. Bridenstine testified that the Space Launch System rocket that will carry the astronauts to the moon is on track for a full test fire of its engines in November. After that, it heads to Kennedy Space Center to be assembled with the Orion crew capsule. The first test launch – without astronauts – is slated for roughly a year after that.
NASA has selected three companies to compete for the job of designing and building the human lander for the mission. Bridenstine said in order to stay on track, they need to be able to select one of the companies by February to build the system.
On a call with reporters Monday, Bridenstine said he expects Congress to produce a short-term "continuing resolution" before October that would extend the nation’s 2020 budget and then expire sometime before Christmas. At that point, Congress would execute some kind of omnibus appropriations bill. "We need that $3.2 billion for the human landing system," he said. "And I think that if we can have that done before Christmas we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing."
Beyond that, the administrator couldn't guarantee the 2024 goal. "If we go beyond March and we still don’t have the human landing system funded, it becomes increasingly more difficult," he said.