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White House wants $1.6 billion extra for NASA to accelerate astronaut return to the Moon

White House wants $1.6 billion extra for NASA to accelerate astronaut return to the Moon

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The cost of a lunar return

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Image: NASA

NASA and the White House will ask Congress for an extra $1.6 billion in next year’s budget to accelerate human missions to the Moon and return people to the lunar surface by 2024. The space agency is requesting these funds in addition to the $21 billion budget that the president already requested for NASA.

The funding proposal is laid out in a new budget amendment that NASA officials have been crafting for the last two months, along with input from the White House. The additional funds are meant to help NASA meet Pence’s challenge of sending astronauts back to the Moon within the next five years. During a speech at a meeting of the National Space Council in March, Pence said that NASA’s original goal of sending humans to the Moon by 2028 was “just not good enough,” and that the space agency would pull off this new deadline by “any means necessary.”

At the time of his speech, Pence mentioned that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine had detailed the strategy for hastening the lunar return “five minutes” before the vice president had walked onstage. But it soon became clear that the granular details of the plan — regarding budget and architecture — had not been decided yet. Now, NASA is releasing these details, along with a new name for the lunar initiative: Artemis, after the Greek goddess of the Moon and Apollo’s twin sister.

Of the $1.6 billion the agency is requesting, $651 million is meant to accelerate the development of vehicles that NASA has already been working on: a massive new rocket called the Space Launch System, or the SLS, and a new capsule to carry humans called Orion. The Orion capsule is meant to ride on top of the future SLS, carrying humans into deep space and onto the Moon. The vehicles are supposed to fly together for the first time in 2020, marking the debut of the SLS. However, the 2020 launch date is still very uncertain.

Additionally, $1 billion will go toward beginning the development of a new lunar lander that can carry people to and from the Moon’s surface, “three years earlier than previously envisioned,” according to a budget document released after the announcement. But while the lander program gets a giant boost in funding, NASA is also downgrading other lunar projects. As part of its Moon initiative, NASA has been planning to develop a new space station around the Moon called the Gateway. This new platform is meant to serve as an outpost for lunar astronauts, where they can live and train before traveling down to the surface of the Moon. NASA envisions this Gateway consisting of various modules strung together, either designed for habitation or for providing power and propulsion.

But in the rush to get to the Moon more quickly, Bridenstine has said that NASA might instead focus on a scaled-down version of the Gateway — one consisting of just a power module and a small habitat module. In the president’s original budget request, the Gateway received $824 million, but the amendment calls for a reduction of that budget by $321 million.

On top of that, $132 million is set aside for the development of new technology that will be needed for a lunar return, such as new types of propulsion and hardware that can convert ice that might be on the Moon into water. The last $90 million will go toward science that will increase “robotic exploration of the Moon’s polar regions in advance of a human mission.”

In a press teleconference, Bridenstine noted that this new money will not be coming from any existing NASA programs. “That is something we thought was very important to continue the direction that NASA has had and the direction that we have going forward,” he said. However, he would not say where the money is coming from outside of NASA, claiming he did not know. “I have not been formally briefed, and nobody has told me,” he said. “My focus has been on what NASA needs.” However, a report in The Associated Press confirms that the money will be coming from outside of NASA and taken from a surplus in Pell Grants, the federal awards given to college students in need of financial aid.

NASA officials also made it clear that the space agency will work with aerospace companies and international space agencies on this endeavor. “We’re not going to go forward alone,” Mark Sirangelo, the special assistant to the NASA administrator in charge of the agency’s Moon to Mars campaign, said during the press conference. “We’re going to look at different ways that we can partner with our commercial partners, partner with our international partners, and with our universities.”

Numerous commercial companies have been eager to get on board, too. After Pence announced this ambitious lunar strategy, multiple companies, including Lockheed Martin and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, have made pitches for how they could help NASA get back to the Moon faster. NASA still hasn’t made any decisions on which companies it plans to use just yet, but NASA says it will likely award contracts for lunar landers by September or October of this year.

Update May 13th, 8:56PM ET: This story was updated to include new details in a budget amendment summary document as well as information from a NASA press conference.

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