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lunar landing
A 2024 human lunar landing, a goal many in the industry treated skeptically even before the election, may now be out of reach. (credit: NASA)

Moon 2020-something


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It can be hard to believe, in this era where the pandemic has warped our sense of time, that the centerpiece of NASA’s human space exploration plans isn’t that new. It was only in March 2019, a little more than 18 months ago, that Vice President Mike Pence announced that he was calling on NASA to return humans to the Moon by 2024. Prior to his speech, NASA was working towards a human landing in 2028, after first assembling the lunar Gateway.

“Some have said they would like to have that landing take place by 2024. Well, that would require an enormous amount of resources,” said Cantwell.

While the 2024 human lunar return was born on March 26, 2019, it may have died on November 7, 2020. On that day former Vice President Joe Biden declared victory in his race against President Donald Trump after vote tallies made it clear he won Pennsylvania, putting him over the threshold of 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Space, for obvious reasons, was not an issue during the presidential race. The Biden campaign never published a policy paper on space, leaving the topic to a single paragraph in the Democratic party platform:

Democrats continue to support the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and are committed to continuing space exploration and discovery. We believe in continuing the spirit of discovery that has animated NASA’s human space exploration, in addition to its scientific and medical research, technological innovation, and educational mission that allows us to better understand our own planet and place in the universe. We will strengthen support for the United States’ role in space through our continued presence on the International Space Station, working in partnership with the international community to continue scientific and medical innovation. We support NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system. Democrats additionally support strengthening NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth observation missions to better understand how climate change is impacting our home planet.

Nothing in the passage suggests a radical departure in space policy. There is, many observed, an increased emphasis on Earth science, which fits into a broader effort on climate change that the campaign has identified as one of its top overall priorities. The passage supports continued operation of the ISS and even missions to the Moon and Mars.

Notably absent from that platform, though, was any mention of a date for returning Americans to the Moon. A 2024 landing was always considered ambitious at best, but the language in the platform makes it appear to many that a Biden administration will, at the very least, take its foot off the gas pedal of the Artemis program.

In the days after Election Day last week, as the momentum shifted increasing towards the Biden campaign, more people seemed willing to speak out to express their skepticism about the 2024 deadline.

“I’m very excited about this program,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, of Artemis. In a talk Friday at a conference organized by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center, she said Congress “was very excited about Artemis in general.”

“No matter who won, this is an impossible goal,” said Garver.

In general. “While there is a lot of excitement in Congress, there’s not always a consensus about when, and what timeframe, we should have to meet this Artemis goal,” she continued. “Some have said they would like to have that landing take place by 2024. Well, that would require an enormous amount of resources, so that debate will continue, and I think we’ll get our NASA administrator and others to set an accurate timeframe for what it will really take us to return to the Moon.”

Later in the conference, Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies whose research includes space policy, offered a similar view. “I don’t think Artemis will get canceled. I also don’t think it will get any more money than what it’s currently getting,” she said.

“I think the 2024 deadline has always been a little bit iffy, just given the history of large-scale space projects,” she noted. “A Biden administration might feel a little bit better about letting that go a little bit.”

Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator during the Obama Administration, also was skeptical about the 2024 deadline. “I don’t know anyone who thinks we’re going to get there by 2024,” she said during a talk Saturday night at the SpaceVision 2020 conference by Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. “No matter who won, this is an impossible goal.”

One reason for that skepticism is funding. In September, NASA released a report outlining its lunar exploration plans and funding needs. The agency projected spending about $28 billion between fiscal years 2021 and 2025 solely on programs needed for the 2024 human lunar landing, the so-called “Phase 1” of the overall Artemis program. More than half, or $16.2 billion, went to the Human Landing System (HLS) program to develop crewed lunar landers.

That total included $3.2 billion in its fiscal year 2021 budget request. However, the House provided only about $600 million for HLS in its 2021 spending bill. The Senate has yet to even release a draft of a spending bill. NASA, like the rest of the federal government, is operating under a continuing resolution funding it at fiscal year 2020 levels through December 11, by which time Congress will need to have either passed another CR or full-year spending bills.

“The only possibility would be maybe setting the sights for the lunar exploration and human landing there to be slightly later than 2024,” Shotwell said. “I know that was a long shot to begin with.”

“It is critically important that we get that $3.2 billion,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in September, arguing that without the funding it wouldn’t be possible to keep a 2024 landing on schedule. He told a Senate committee later that month that the funding for fiscal year 2021 needed to be in place by February, when the initial “base period” of the HLS awards NASA made in April to Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX run out.

Even companies involved in the HLS program are skeptical about getting humans back on the Moon by 2024. Asked during a panel at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week Virtual Edition conference Monday about the effects a Biden Administration might have on her company, Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, brought up that goal.

“The only possibility would be maybe setting the sights for the lunar exploration and human landing there to be slightly later than 2024,” she said. “I know that was a long shot to begin with. I think it would be great if we could continue to work towards that, but they may want to provide more time prior to landing humans on the Moon.”

Advocates for the 2024 landing, including Bridenstine, argued that speed was essential to the program. Going quickly, he argued, helped protect the program from political risks, and avoiding the increased costs that come with stretching it out.

Garver agreed. “If you say, oh, we’ll just extend it, it’s still going to cost that, plus more every year you have to keep the standing army,” she said. “The transition team is going to have to wrap their head around that.”

She said she expected that Earth science activities “will likely, in my view, dominate a civil space agenda for a Biden-Harris Administration,” but exactly how that will play out remains to be seen. “Transitions are about figuring out what’s actually happening versus what’s said was happening, and once we have someone in there doing that we’ll have a better idea.”

Lunar exploration, Garver said, should remain a goal of some kind for spaceflight, but the question is the rationale, which she argued should be sustaining humanity. “Getting off the planet permanently is not a rushed job. It is a job that needs to be done in a way that will succeed over the long term,” she said. “If we don’t put some really significant resources into allowing humanity to be sustained on this planet, we’re not going to have to time to leave it. You can’t really do one without the other.”


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