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The uphill battle NASA faces to sell its Moon plan to Congress

We’re only at the beginning

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Image: NASA

On Monday, NASA revealed the preliminary budget and basic outline of its lunar initiative Artemis, a program that aims to put the first woman on the surface of the Moon by 2024. But the space agency has a long road ahead before any astronauts will be traversing the lunar landscape. While putting the first female astronaut on the Moon is long overdue, there are still a lot of things that have go right over the next five years in order for this ambitious project to become a reality.

NASA’s first big hurdle is a political one. Over the next few months, the space agency must sell this initiative to Congress, which controls the government’s budget. Lawmakers may like the idea of putting women on the Moon, but they may not want to raid the budgets of other federal programs to help NASA achieve its goal. Plus, Congress has to buy into NASA’s blueprint for this lunar return mission, and lawmakers will be taking a close look at how the space agency plans to get there.

NASA’s first big hurdle is a political one

The US sent people to the Moon before with its Apollo program in the 1960s, so we know it can be done. But the political circumstances surrounding those missions were very different. Back then, the space race with the Soviet Union imbued the Apollo program with a greater sense of urgency and Congress poured enough funds into NASA’s budget to make the ambitious plan possible. US politics are very different now, and it’s unlikely that NASA will see such a huge increase to its budget this time around.

The Sell

NASA is already looking at an uphill battle, thanks to how this big lunar push began. When Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA in March to accelerate its human exploration of the Moon, he said that the agency had a plan to do it. But it took NASA officials and the White House nearly two months post-announcement to craft a budget amendment, detailing how much the initial phase of the program would cost. Key lawmakers in Congress made their frustrations known over the delay and lack of details.

“We have a White House directive to land humans on the Moon in five years, but no plan, and no budget details on how to do so,” Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), the chair of the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, said last week during a hearing before the budget was announced. “In essence, we’re flying blind.”

lawmakers have an outline of a plan and a budget request that’s relatively small

Now, lawmakers have an outline of a plan and a budget request that’s relatively small. Some reports initially estimated that up to $8 billion extra would be needed each year to make this possible. But the space agency is only asking Congress for an extra $1.6 billion to fund Artemis for fiscal year 2020, on top of the $21 billion the president already requested for NASA. For context, the total is only about $1.1 billion above the $21.5 billion NASA got in fiscal year 2019. That’s not a hard increase for Congress to approve.

“This is not the $40 billion over five years, which I think would be dead on arrival,” Charles Miller, president of space consulting firm NexGen Space LLC and a former member of the Trump administration’s NASA transition team, tells The Verge. “This was a reasonable request that is the right level that you can do if you are leveraging commercial partnerships.”

But more money is definitely going to be needed. “This is the first step to get this out of the gate in a very strong way. But in future years, we are going to need more money,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference on Monday. “This is a down payment,” he added, declining to give specifics on how much it might cost over time. By not going into detail about future budgets, Bridenstine may be trying to make the Artemis program’s cost more palatable for lawmakers. “This kind of incremental approach helps to avoid the sticker shock,” Laura Forczyk, a space consultant and owner of space research and consulting firm Astralytical, tells The Verge.

“We are also left with a number of questions about the total cost.”

However, lawmakers want to know whether $1.6 billion is a realistic amount. “We are also left with a number of questions about the total cost,” Horn tells The Verge, “because we still don’t have the total number for a return to the Moon by 2024, and we’re still waiting on a detailed plan. So that would help us evaluate that number.”

From a space perspective, an enticing aspect of the budget is that the extra money is not coming from other NASA programs. All of the space agency’s other initiatives, such as the International Space Station or robotic missions to explore other planets, would remain funded at the same levels. So lawmakers won’t have to choose between funding the Artemis program or funding the next rover to Mars, for instance. Previous big human exploration missions, such as President George W. Bush’s Constellation program to the Moon, called for the cancellation of other big NASA ventures, including the Space Shuttle program. And that’s had long-term effects on NASA’s operations ever since.

An artistic rendering of the space station NASA wants to build around the Moon called Gateway.
An artistic rendering of the space station NASA wants to build around the Moon called Gateway.
Image: NASA

The bad news, though, is that the Trump administration decided to pull this extra $1.6 billion from a very politically risky place: the Pell Grant fund, which provides money for low-income college students in need of financial aid. Specifically, the White House wants to pull from a $9 billion surplus in the Pell Grant program, created from a decline in enrollment. While the decision may not immediately affect students seeking financial help for school, the surplus is meant to act as a reserve in case of future recessions. Taking money from an education program is sure to draw strong backlash, especially from Democrats. It also runs the risk of making this whole Artemis program a partisan issue, which is something that NASA has mostly been able to avoid as political divides have grown stronger during the Trump administration. “The showstopper here is if this is interpreted as a partisan project,” says Miller.

Some lawmakers are already concerned. “We need a lot more people going into STEM fields, we need a lot more rocket scientists, not fewer,” Horn tells The Verge. “And Pell Grant programs are really critical for low- and middle-income families to make that possible.”

“Pell Grant programs are really critical for low- and middle-income families.”

There is some nuance to this, though. The White House is limited in how much money it can propose spending on federal programs, thanks to spending caps that are meant to limit the overall size of the federal budget. So if the administration wants to give more money to NASA, it technically has to take that money from another federal program. In this case, it chose to target the Pell Grant reserves (which were also reduced in the 2019 budget). But that’s not the end of the story. Congress does not have to adhere to these caps and could technically give NASA the extra money without taking it from the Pell Grant fund. “Using the Pell Grants as an offsetting measure is a bookkeeping measure that creates a really unfortunate political narrative, but is not what I consider a really realistic possibility,” Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy adviser at The Planetary Society, tells The Verge. “It’s just so the [White House] could make its balance sheets balance.”

Beyond the Pell Grants, there are other political reasons why Congress would not want to support Artemis. Some Democrats and independents might oppose the lunar program simply because it is supported by the White House. We’ve seen similar showdowns before. When Bridenstine was nominated to run NASA, his selection was hotly debated and the ultimate vote was sharply divided along party lines.

But it is going to be hard to argue with Artemis’ message and branding. Only men walked on the Moon during the Apollo program. It’s doubtful that any lawmaker will openly disagree with the concept of putting the first woman on the Moon, making it risky to be openly critical of the program.

Appealing to old and new

Perhaps the best way to get lawmakers on board will be to appeal to their interests. Whether that entails building rockets in Alabama or new lunar landers in Washington, lawmakers will be keeping a sharp eye on how the proposed Artemis program benefits their constituents. “You’re going to see people wanting to protect their areas,” says Forczyk.

NASA’s plan does a decent job of satisfying key lawmakers who already have vested interests in space. A good chunk of the new money, $651 million, will accelerate the development of vehicles that NASA has been working on for the last decade. These include a giant new rocket called the Space Launch System, or SLS, and a new crew capsule called Orion, which could deliver astronauts to a new station to be built around the Moon. Much of the SLS is being developed and built in Alabama, which has garnered the vehicle strong political support from Alabama lawmakers — notably Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which helps decides NASA’s budget.

An artistic rendering of SLS on the launchpad.
An artistic rendering of SLS on the launchpad.
Image: NASA

For a time, it looked like the SLS and Orion combination could be in jeopardy. The two vehicles have both been in development for a decade now and have cost a combined $30 billion over the last decade, and they still aren’t ready. The programs have encountered numerous delays and cost overruns, and while the pair are supposed to fly together for the first time next year, that target date is dubious. So when Pence challenged NASA to get to the Moon faster, he mentioned that the agency might change its contractors if they couldn’t keep up with the new timeline. “If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will,” said Pence.

However, the idea of abandoning SLS was met with strong resistance, especially by Shelby. With this new budget amendment, NASA has re-upped its commitment to the program, keeping supporters of both the rocket and crew capsule happy. “I have to give the NASA Administrator credit. I think he’s done a very good job of making lemonade out of this,” says Miller.

“I think he’s done a very good job of making lemonade out of this.”

The amendment also leaves the door open for newer aerospace players to get part of a $1 billion piece of the lunar pie, notably when it comes to developing landers to take people to and from the surface of the Moon. NASA has made it clear that it wants numerous commercial companies to send in ideas, and it plans to take a more hands-off approach on the design of the vehicles, giving companies room to create these landers the way they’d like. “I think we’ve got a tremendous chance to really utilize the breadth of commercial industry in a very creative and innovative way,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration, said during a press conference.

By doing things this way, NASA is trying to satisfy both old and new space advocates in Congress and within the industry. NASA’s older contractors will continue to create the SLS and Orion with the space agency’s oversight, while newer companies could spearhead the lunar lander design and garner more public interest. “This might be the first big mission that really marries the two and bridges that gap, and I find that exciting,” Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA under President Obama, tells The Verge. NASA already has interest from the private sector. Lockheed Martin gave its pitch for a human lander in April, and just last week, Jeff Bezos detailed the lunar lander that his company Blue Origin has been working on for the last three years. “That, to me, seems like a gift that was just dropped in their laps,” says Garver.

But even if NASA does manage to get Congress on board and make everyone happy, the next big step is actually pulling off the technical challenge of sending people to the Moon again. NASA’s plan calls for the completion of SLS, which has never flown before; the creation of a new space station around the Moon; and the development of new lunar landers that can take people to and from the lunar surface safely. All of these things need to be built, tested, and functioning in space before the first people step on the lunar surface in 2024. That’s no small feat.

That brings us back to the money. While a small budget that satisfies multiple groups may be politically appealing now, such a low cost estimate is not a realistic amount to actually move this program forward on target. A lot of really expensive and complex vehicles need to be created and finished by 2024 in order to get people back to the Moon. Even if they can get everyone to agree, the time frame is extraordinarily small for a shoestring budget.

“We’re talking about less than five years,” says Dreier from The Planetary Society. Even if they get an extra infusion of money every year, he adds, “technically, it’s still going to be really difficult.”