The Trump administration’s Moon-to-Mars program has already dodged the fate of many past presidential space programs: cancellation under new leadership. Last month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced the Biden administration’s support for Artemis, NASA’s flagship lunar agenda.
It was a rare passing of the baton between two administrations at odds with one another in virtually every other area. And it quelled some industry fears that Biden would shelve the moonshot plan entirely. While still in its infancy, the Artemis program unleashed a wave of industry momentum, partially thanks to an energizing, yet wildly unrealistic target date of 2024 for planting boots on the Moon.
To get a sense of what’s next for Artemis and NASA, The Verge spoke with Bhavya Lal, NASA’s acting chief of staff and currently the agency’s most senior Biden appointee.
Artemis survived the transfer of power — what now?
The program is getting a thorough review. The group of eight scientists and space policy experts tasked with reviewing NASA for Biden’s transition team lifted the hood on Trump’s speedy moonshot plan, announced by then-Vice President Mike Pence in early 2019. The experts came up with a list of things within Artemis that should stay in and things that should stay out to inform the NASA team’s review.
“We weren’t going to just throw away everything that had happened in the last many years and start over.”
“One thing that was absolutely in was continuity of purpose,” says Lal, who has advised past administrations on space policy and was the Biden team’s top space expert during the transition. “We weren’t going to just throw away everything that had happened in the last many years and start over.”
Lal joined NASA in February and is now helping lead the ongoing Artemis review inside the agency, carrying out the guidance she helped draft during the transition.
That review covers every pillar of Artemis, including the agency’s long-delayed and staggeringly over-budget Space Launch System (SLS), the behemoth rocket that will launch the first astronaut crews to the Moon in the Orion capsule. It also includes reviewing the program’s timeline, international partnerships, and coming up with a budget that Congress will like. The review will also refine planned activities on the Moon and identify spots where more commercial activities can get involved, Lal says.
Nothing is set in stone yet. The review is ongoing, and Biden, almost two months into his presidency, has yet to pick his NASA administrator. That’s no surprise — it took Trump nearly eight months to nominate his administrator, Jim Bridenstine, and almost another eight months to win Senate confirmation. It was four months before Barack Obama named Charles Bolden, and about ten months before George Bush tapped Sean O’Keefe.
Getting to the Moon — just not by 2024
NASA aims to continue its investment in SLS and Orion while keeping an eye on private sector rockets for help if needed. “SLS and Orion will be providing initial transportation to and from lunar orbit beyond Artemis, and any proven commercial transportation can make up gaps if there are any,” Lal says.
By the time the Boeing-built SLS flies for the first time (likely sometime next year, almost three years later than planned), the agency will have spent nearly $20 billion on the program, NASA’s inspector general reported last year, with each launch thereafter coming out to about $2 billion.
Cheaper commercial rockets built by firms like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the United Launch Alliance exist but currently are only poised to launch uncrewed pieces of the Artemis program to space. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will launch the first two elements of NASA’s Lunar Gateway, a planned space station orbiting the Moon.
Where possible, NASA needs to “maintain multiple providers of launch vehicles, landers, spacecraft, across the enterprise so the US isn’t overly reliant on one system or provider,” Lal says. That’s the spirit set out in NASA’s human lunar landing system program, the centerpiece of Artemis that aims to pick two different landers capable of ferrying astronauts to the lunar surface.
With short funding from Congress, “2024 wasn’t realistic.”
But Congress, though roundly supportive of the Artemis program, balked at the Trump administration’s request for $3.3 billion to fund speedy development of those landers. Instead, it gave NASA $850 million for lander development, pounding the last nail in the coffin for Trump’s 2024 goal, which many in the space industry viewed as unachievable.
Biden’s NASA will set a more manageable timetable, Lal says. “One of the transition team findings was that 2024, given the appropriations from Congress at least in the last two years, 2024 wasn’t realistic.” Setting a new date is tied to coming up with a palatable budget for Congress, “which is a question mark” at this point, Lal says.
International partnerships, with Artemis and beyond
“Honoring commitments made to international partners” was a key principle of the transition team’s findings, says Lal, whether on the International Space Station or in the Artemis Accords, a set of multilateral agreements with US allies that aims to set legal standards of behavior in space. Those partners include Russia, a US adversary but a longtime NASA partner on the ISS, where the shared goal of keeping an orbital laboratory healthy supersedes the messy tensions back on Earth.
But the NASA-Russia relationship is changing. Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, has been reluctant to extend its alliance with NASA to the Moon, and last year the US sought to exclude Russia from early talks on the Artemis Accords. This week, Russia made good on its claims to ditch Artemis by announcing a new agreement with China to build a rival Moon base and space station in lunar orbit, cementing a new front in an increasingly polarized race into deep space.
NASA is courting its own allies for Artemis, but it’s barred from collaborating with China, thanks to a 2011 law called the Wolf Amendment, named after the now-retired Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). But as Beijing ups its game on the Moon, some of Biden’s space advisors have argued against the Chinese exclusion policy. “Trying to exclude them I think is a failing strategy,” former astronaut Pam Melroy told Politico last year, before joining Biden’s NASA transition team.
Lal tamps down prospects of NASA-China cooperation under Biden’s NASA: “I don’t expect China collaborations, at least on the Artemis program, in any way shape or form.”
She says the NASA-Russia relationship, on the other hand, should continue for the foreseeable future. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t be collaborating with them in deep space activities.” Despite Russia bowing out of NASA’s Lunar Gateway program, NASA said in a statement to The Verge on Wednesday that “they did offer to continue exploring interoperability and we welcome such a discussion.”
International relations could extend to NASA’s climate science operations, a quieter side of the space agency that is expected to grow under Biden. Last month, NASA’s Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk had a phone call with Russia’s space chief Dmitry Rogozin, where Jurczyk discussed NASA’s “focus on climate change studies with the help of space technology,” according to a Roscosmos statement. Rogozin “supported the idea of cooperating in this field,” the statement said.
Lal says it is too early to discuss what specific plans are in the works for boosting NASA’s role in Biden’s sweeping climate agenda. But she says it’s not just about expanding current programs or upping the workload for NASA’s existing fleet of weather satellites — it’s also about starting new programs on both domestic and international fronts.
“Climate is an area where we’re joined at the hip,” she says. Like the space station, where astronaut safety overrides geopolitics, “it may be necessary to even work with some of our adversaries” on an agreement for sharing crucial climate data.