NASA is definitely targeting the moon's south pole for a crewed landing in 2024 — but that timeline will be difficult to achieve if Congress doesn't open its purse strings, and fast, agency chief Jim Bridenstine said.
During a presentation with NASA's Lunar Exploration Analysis Group last Monday (Sept. 14), Bridenstine seemed to suggest that the agency is open to a more equatorial site for the 2024 touchdown, a key milestone in NASA's Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration.
That would be a big shift for NASA, which has long stressed that the first crewed moon landing since the Apollo days would come near the south pole, where lots of water ice lurks on permanently shadowed crater floors. But Bridenstine just clarified that his earlier words about the 2024 mission, known as Artemis 3, were purely hypothetical.
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"To be clear: We're going to the south pole," Bridenstine said during a teleconference with reporters yesterday (Sept. 21). "And there is no talk or trades or anything else about anything other than going to the south pole at NASA."
The astronauts who hit the gray dirt in 2024 will do so aboard a private lander — one built by SpaceX, Dynetics or a team headed by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin. In April of this year, NASA awarded these three groups a total of $967 million, which is covering 10 months' worth of work on their concepts.
NASA will need to pour considerably more money into the development of these human landing systems, one or more of which will survive a cull expected to come early next year. Indeed, the White House's 2021 federal budget request allocates about $3.2 billion for crewed lunar lander work in fiscal year 2021, out of a total proposed NASA budget of $25.2 billion.
That request has not yet been enacted by Congress, which controls federal spending. In July, the House Appropriations Committee released its 2021 funding bill, which would allocate $22.6 billion to NASA, including just $628 million for the lunar landers.
"We are exceptionally grateful to the House of Representatives, that in a bipartisan way they have determined that funding a human landing system is important," Bridenstine said during yesterday's telecon. "And that's what that $600 million represents."
But he said that NASA will continue asking for the $3.2 billion, stressing that getting the full amount is "critically important" to achieving the 2024 crewed landing.
The Senate has yet to issue its own appropriations bill, which must then be reconciled with the House version. These two steps are very unlikely to happen before Oct. 1, when the 2021 fiscal year begins. So, the nation will likely enter the new fiscal year with a short-term "continuing resolution," a funding bill that mostly maintains the status quo, Bridenstine said.
That continuing resolution would probably expire sometime around Christmas, he added, at which point Congress would enact an omnibus appropriations bill — or another short-term continuing resolution, which would expire around March 2021 or so.
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If Congress enacts an omnibus appropriations bill before the end of the year, and that bill provides the full $3.2 billion for crewed lunar lander development in fiscal 2021, NASA will remain on target for the ambitious 2024 target date, Bridenstine said.
"If we go to March without the $3.2 billion, it becomes more difficult. I would argue that we're still within the realm of possibility, because we do have our work underway right now," he said. "If we go beyond March and we still don't have the human landing system funded, it becomes increasingly more difficult."
Such difficulty could translate into a later date for Artemis 3, but Bridenstine stressed that NASA is committed to making the epic lunar landing happen.
"If they push the funding off, our goal will be to get to the moon at the earliest possible opportunity," he said, explaining that going fast reduces Artemis' "political risks," such as cancellation by officials impatient with the pace of progress.
The Artemis program has two main phases. The first runs through 2024 and ends with Artemis 3, the first crewed landing on the moon since NASA's Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The second phase is devoted to establishing a long-term, sustainable human presence on and around the moon, which NASA aims to achieve by the end of the 2020s.
And all of this work will lead to something even bigger, if NASA's plans come to fruition. Agency officials have said that everything done with the program will help NASA and its partners learn the skills and techniques needed to get astronauts to Mars, which NASA aims to accomplish in the 2030s.
The private sector will supply the Artemis crewed lunar lander(s), whose services NASA will procure. But the agency will own most of the other big-ticket Artemis hardware, including the Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and Orion capsule, which will get astronauts off Earth and on their way to the moon.
NASA also plans to build a small space station in lunar orbit called Gateway, which will serve as a jumping-off point for sorties to the lunar surface. NASA has not yet determined if Gateway will be involved with the Artemis 3 landing, but the orbiting outpost will be vital to the agency's long-term plans at and around the moon, Bridenstine stressed yesterday.
SLS has never gotten off the ground, and Orion has just one uncrewed test flight to Earth orbit under its belt. The duo are scheduled to fly together for the first time in late 2021 on Artemis 1, an uncrewed mission around the moon. Artemis 2, a crewed test flight around the moon targeted for 2023, will be the first crewed SLS-Orion flight.
Yesterday, NASA released a formal, updated Artemis plan that lays out these milestones and others in considerable detail. For example, the plan estimates that a total of $28 billion will be required, from fiscal year 2021 through fiscal year 2025, to fund Artemis' first phase. You can read the plan here.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.