lunar lander
The final version of the human lunar lander call for proposals allows companies to dock their landers directly to an Orion spacecraft and skip the Gateway, at least for the first lunar landing mission. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine used a Dec. 5 speech on Capitol Hill to implore Congress to finish a fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill for NASA as soon as possible to give the agency funding to proceed on a lunar lander program.

Bridenstine, speaking at a Space Transportation Association luncheon, told an audience of industry officials and congressional staffers that the agency needed a final appropriations bill, and not another stopgap spending measure, to keep development of a lunar lander on track to enable a human return to the moon by 2024.

NASA, along with the rest of the federal budget, is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds programs at fiscal year 2019 levels but prevents new programs from starting. The current CR funds the government through Dec. 20.

“CRs are better than shutdowns, we all know that. But CRs are not appropriations,” he said. “CRs aren’t going to get us there. I asking you to work, as diligently as possible, Republicans and Democrats, in a bipartisan way, to get a bill that can get us a lander to put us on the surface of the moon.”

In an amendment to the agency’s fiscal year 2020 budget request in May, NASA sought $1 billion to work on human-rated lunar landers. The House version of its commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill included no funding for the lander, while the Senate version provided about $744 million for lander development.

“The Senate mark is good, and we’re very appreciative of that,” Bridenstine said. He added, though, that the agency “would have to turn some knobs” on the lander program if it does end up with that amount rather than the full $1 billion.

He urged full funding for the lander program as a measure that, he argued, would save money in the long run. “If we underfund at the beginning, we’ll have to downselect early, and then the costs in the end go way, way up,” he said.

The Human Landing System program envisions awarding initial study contracts to several companies, then selecting two for full development. “If we can come out of the gate with maybe three different, independent solutions, and then downselect to two, yes, that costs more money up front, but it will save the American taxpayer on the back end and it will increase the probability of success,” he said.

Bridenstine also pressed for a final spending bill as soon as possible, warning that if the process stretched on for too long, as could be the case if Congress instead passed another CR this month, it would jeopardize the ability to have a lander ready by the 2024 deadline.

“As time goes on, there’s going to come a date when I’m going to have to say, look, if we don’t have an appropriation for a lander that’s significant, we’re not going to be able to go to the moon on the timescale that we’re looking for,” he said. He added he didn’t know when that date was, but doubted it was when the current CR expires Dec. 20.

It might be possible, he added, to start work on the landers even if NASA is still under a CR in early 2020 because the program is part of NASA’s existing Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, rather than a wholly new effort. Companies are already working on their lander designs on their own, he noted, but won’t fund that work with their own money indefinitely.

Exactly how the appropriations process will play out over the next two weeks is unclear. House and Senate appropriators finally agreed last month on spending allocations among their 12 separate bills, allowing them to begin negotiations to reconcile differences between House and Senate versions. However, issues ranging from debates on border security funding to potential impeachment proceedings against President Trump could delay any final agreement on spending bills.

“Anybody who says they know how it’s going to end doesn’t,” said Jim Morhard, NASA deputy administrator and a former Senate Appropriations Committee chief of staff, of the appropriations process in a Dec. 3 interview. He said then he didn’t have any insights in how appropriations were leaning regarding funding the agency’s programs, including the lunar lander. “I can’t read the tea leaves, but I’m confident they’ll make the right decisions.”

Bridenstine concluded his luncheon speech with another request to Congress to act soon on NASA’s budget, including putting the CJS bill in an “minibus” of several appropriations bills that would be completed together. “I’m asking you to help us. We’ve got big projects ahead,” he said. “Help us with this landing system that we need so desperately.”

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...