NASA has a big to-do list for 2020, as the agency continues to build its Artemis program with the goal of sending the first woman to the Moon by 2024. This year, NASA also hopes to start launching its astronauts from the US again, after nearly a decade of launching them to space on Russian vehicles. It’s still unclear if NASA will meet all the ambitious deadlines it has set for itself.
Yet, the agency has already started off this year strong. This weekend, SpaceX launched a crucial flight test for NASA that could pave the way for the company to start launching the space agency’s astronauts sometime this year. That puts NASA in a good starting position, though there’s still quite a lot of work to be done.
The Verge spoke with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine about what we can expect for 2020 and how confident he is that the agency can meet its ambitious timelines.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
This is the first big flight for NASA this year. How does that set the tone for the year ahead?
I think it went as well as it could have gone. Of course, I always have to say we’ve got a lot more data to go through. But you know, we had an end-to-end test of a launch abort system, which is the most complicated and most dynamic environment that we’re going to fly in. All of the data that’s coming in, it looks like everything is right down the middle where it ought to be. So I think it’s good for the agency to see an end-to-end very successful mission.
Now, the Starliner [flight test] did end well. But obviously, it didn’t have the exact flight profile we were hoping for. How was experiencing this test after going through that test in December?
I know you haven’t ever heard me say this before, but we do need to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. Now, this test puts us in a position where if everything comes back according to what we believe it’s going to come back. The desire and the reality are now converging in a way that otherwise would not necessarily be possible. So the probability of success is going to go way up if all of the data comes back, and it looks as good as it appeared on the launch and the reentry.
You guys have a busy year ahead, and you just got approval for part of the funding that you’re looking for for Artemis. How are you hoping to use that funding, and what can we expect from the budget process as you formalize that?
So the 2020 budget finally got done, which is better than being in a [continuing resolution] for a full year. We at least got it done before halfway through the year anyway — the fiscal year.
On the positive side of things, we do have, for the first time since 1972, a human landing system for the Moon that is funded at a significant level: $600 million. And we are certainly very grateful to the House and the Senate for, in a bipartisan way, coming together to make that happen. We did request a billion dollars, so we didn’t get everything we were hoping for. What we’ve got to look at is how we’re doing the acquisition process and then figure out if there’s anything we can do differently to make sure that we are putting ourselves in the highest probability of success to land the next man and the first woman on the Moon by 2024.
But the other thing we need to go back and look at is the 2021 budget to see what we need to do in the 2021 budget to make sure we’re moving forward. The good thing about 2021 is the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations will not have the Census in it. So there’s billions of dollars there that get occupied every 10 years. So 2020 was a challenging year for the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill. That being said, even in that challenging year, we did very well. Our budget went up with bipartisan support. We kept the human landing system funded to $600 million. 2021 is going to be an even bigger year, and we’re going to need a bigger budget.
We’re working with OMB, the vice president’s staff, and the National Space Council. I think we’re going to get a really good budget.
I know a lot of lawmakers have been asking for the full five-year plan for Artemis. Is that something we can expect from this request coming out?
Yeah, you’ll see how we’re going to spend money five years into the future.
What about in terms of the schedule for human landers? I saw you recently noted that because the full $1 billion wasn’t funded, you might ask companies to fund a little bit more themselves. Is that still the plan? And when can we expect those decisions to be made?
It’s a wonderful question. What I will tell you is that we have received proposals from a broad agency announcement that we put out, which puts us now in a blackout period, and I really don’t want to comment on that while we’re in the blackout period. So I’ll just have to have to leave it at that.
As we’re getting closer to 2024, how are you feeling about the chances of meeting that deadline?
It’s good. A lot of things have to go right, make no mistake. But we have the SLS core stage complete, which was a huge milestone that took forever, but we finally got there. It’s now at Stennis [Space Center in Mississippi]. It’s in the vertical. We’ll do the budget rollout at Stennis with the SLS rocket ship.
We want to see that Green Run test move forward as fast as possible, and get the rocket to Cape [Canaveral], maybe even by the end of this year.
Are there any thresholds that need to be met for the 2024 landing to definitely happen on time?
I’ll tell you, it’s all based on funding. I think if you look at the history, the history is not that we don’t have great programs and great program managers and contractors that are doing great work. The history is always that the funding never matches the vision, and so the fact that we got $600 million in 2020 puts us in the game. The 2021 budget is even more important, and it’s going to have to be a lot bigger than $600 million.
But then, of course, the SLS testing has to go well. The Orion crew capsule testing is going very, very well. And we got to get those projects in the Cape. And we’ve got to make sure that we get the Power and Propulsion Element of the Gateway complete.
Is there any update on that?
So far, it’s going well. But it’s still early. We have to make sure that we get that Power and Propulsion Element complete, and then the big thing is the lander.
A lot of people have suggested that it can’t be done. But I would argue that if you look at what happened in the 1960s, we got the directive from President Kennedy to do it within a decade, and we did it within eight years. And at the time, we didn’t have the Johnson Space Center. We didn’t have a Saturn V rocket. We didn’t have really the knowledge of orbital physics the way we understand it today. We didn’t have the miniaturization of computing power or power density capabilities that we have today. We have so many advantages today that we didn’t have back then. We just have to make it happen. But again, we can’t do it without the budget.
I think we are well within the realm of what is possible. But a lot of things have to go right. Not everything has to go right, but a lot of things have to go right, starting with getting a good 2021 budget.
You talked about how the funding hasn’t matched, but there also have been delays with Boeing on the SLS. The launch date is no longer 2020, or it’s definitely going to be 2021...
It’ll be 2021.
So are there any concerns about further delays there? Or do you feel confident that they will stick to the schedule?
We’re through the toughest part. Again, it depends on what we learn in testing. But I think what we’re going to be able to do on testing is we’re going to be able to make modifications that the system is designed to be modified if necessary. But we could learn things that would pose a threat. And the question is, how do you get those things fixed? I don’t anticipate that happening. But what we know throughout history is that those kinds of things do pop up, and we’ve got to get them fixed. But again, we did it in the 1960s with a fraction of the capability that we have today, so I think it can be done.
What can we expect from NASA this year, and what do you hope people take away from the agency?
You want me to say it again? We need to launch American astronauts again, and this is the year to do it. We have two dissimilar providers that give us a high probability of having that be successful. We are so grateful for what SpaceX has done and what Boeing has done. They’ve both put us in a great position to be successful. We need to see the Green Run test get finished. We need to accelerate it as much as possible and get that rocket to the Cape. And then we need to see amazing progress on the Gateway and figure out how we’re going to purchase a human landing system that can get us to the Moon within four years and 11 months. It’s definitely possible, but we’ve got to get after it and in a meaningful way.
We’re going to launch Mars 2020 this year. That’s a big development. It will land in 2021, but we’re going to launch it this year. And for the first time, we’re going to make oxygen on Mars. We’re going to have a Mars helicopter, which is phenomenal itself. So there’s going to be a lot of exciting things that will be launched and ready to go for 2021.