NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Senate committee July 17 a firm cost estimate for the Artemis program won't be available until the administration releases its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal next February. NASA/Bill Ingalls

RENTON, Wash. — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Senate committee July 17 that a cost estimate for landing humans on the moon by 2024 likely won’t be ready until the administration submits a budget request next February.

Appearing before the Senate Commerce Committee to discuss the agency’s deep space exploration plans, Bridenstine said a detailed estimate of the costs of the Artemis program is in progress, but depends in part on contributions from commercial partnerships as well as upcoming decisions on the development of programs like the Space Launch System.

In an interview in June, Bridenstine estimated that landing humans on the south pole of the moon by 2024 would cost $20–30 billion above the agency’s existing budget estimates, developed when NASA was still pursuing a human return by 2028. Bridenstine has, in more recent interviews like one on C-SPAN July 12, backed away from that estimate somewhat, arguing that commercial partnerships might be able to reduce that cost to “well under” $20 billion.

Senators pressed Bridenstine at the hearing for more information on the cost of Artemis. “Congress needs more details on the funding requirements so we can be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the committee, in his opening remarks.

Asked later in the hearing by the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), about budgets, Bridenstine said details cost estimates would be included in the agency’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. “We are working within the administration to come up with what the trades are, so we can get an accurate budget presented for 2021,” he said. “In that 2021 budget, you will see the outyear funding for the Artemis program, through 2024 and beyond.”

Budget proposals by agencies like NASA usually include five years’ worth of estimates, so the fiscal year 2021 proposal would include estimates through fiscal year 2025. Often, however, those outyear projections are often considered notional. Bridenstine said the estimate would provide “the dollars we are looking at spending” for those later years to achieve the lunar landing goal.

“And that’s going to be soon?” Cantwell asked.

“It will be in the regular 2021 budget process, so February of 2020,” he responded.

One factor in developing that estimate, he said, is what contributions commercial partners will provide for aspects of the program like development of lunar landers. He said some companies had offered to pay 30 percent or more of the total cost of landers they have proposed developing because they see potential non-NASA customers for those vehicles.

“That helps us if they get selected for the project,” he said. “Depending on how much money these companies invest, it changes the number” for NASA’s costs.

Bridenstine added that such commercial partnerships could provide redundancy for NASA by allowing it to support development of more than one lunar lander. “In my view, we should have three commercial landers that are receiving support from commercial industry,” he said. “And then, as time goes on, downselect to two.”

Another factor will be new cost and schedule estimates for programs like SLS and Orion, which have suffered extensive delays. “I think we have a long history at NASA of cost and schedule not being set in a realistic way, and then, of course, not achieving our cost and schedule,” he said. “In many cases, that leads to lack of confidence from the key people that we need, namely folks here on this committee.”

He said it would be the responsibility of the next associate administrator for human exploration and operations to develop those new cost and schedule estimates. NASA reassigned the former associate administrator, Bill Gerstenmaier, to a special advisor position July 10, and Bridenstine said he will undertake a “nationwide search” to find a permanent replacement.

“We want to make sure we have new leadership in place before we make those decisions” about SLS and Orion, such as whether to undertake a “green run” static-fire test of the SLS core stage, he said.

Bridenstine, though, appeared to indicate a first launch of SLS in 2020 was no longer in the cards. “I think 2021 is definitely achievable” for that mission, called Artemis-1. He added he wants that new leadership hired “before we set out a new deadline for Artemis-1.”

While not being specific about the costs and schedules of Artemis, he did once again warn of the adverse effects on the program should NASA start the 2020 fiscal year Oct. 1 on a continuing resolution (CR), which would fund the agency at 2019 levels.

“It would be devastating,” he said of a CR, noting it would affect in particular the lunar lander development that requires a new start that is not possible in a CR without an exception or “anomaly” to the funding resolution. “If we end up in a CR, that lander doesn’t continue to get developed.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...