"At the end of the day we're going in 2024, whatever that takes," NASA Administrator Jim Bridestine said during an April 1 town hall meeting with NASA employees. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a television interview June 13 that it will cost the agency an additional $20 billion to $30 billion to return humans to the moon, the first range of costs given by the agency for the program.

In an interview with CNN, Bridenstine said that estimate would be above earlier projections for costs of existing elements of what’s now called the Artemis program, such as the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft

“For the whole program, to get a sustainable presence on the moon, we’re looking at between 20 and 30 billion dollars,” he said. “When we talk about the 20 to 30 billion dollars, it would be 20 or 30 billion on top of the normal NASA budget but, of course, that would be spread over five years.”

Bridenstine’s remark was the first time he or others at NASA have given even a range of costs for the Artemis program. In other speeches and advisory committee meetings, those officials have declined to give cost estimates, in part because development of budget proposals is done behind closed doors.

“We have those numbers, and we’re still discussing those internally,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a May 31 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) when asked about the costs of the program. “I’m hesitant to give you the number because we’re still in this deliberation.”

A total cost of $20–30 billion works out to an average of $4–6 billion per year through 2024. However, NASA is seeking only $1.6 billion in new funding for Artemis in a fiscal year 2020 budget amendment released May 13, and NASA has acknowledged it will need larger increases in future years to achieve the goal of a human landing on the moon by 2024.

“We anticipate that we’ll need an increase in the budget in ’21, ’22, ’23, ’24,” Ken Bowersox, deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a NAC committee meeting May 28. He added that the agency had developed overall budget estimates, “but we don’t talk about those publicly until we’ve gotten agreement from all our stakeholders that it’s okay to do that.”

It wasn’t clear whether Bridenstine had, in fact, gotten that agreement before disclosing the overall cost estimate in the interview, or why he chose to do so in that interview. Agency sources said that figure should be treated as a preliminary estimate only.

The lack of cost estimates for Artemis had become a point of frustration for members of Congress. “For us in Congress to be able to grapple with these things, we need some idea of how much of a cost is expected to be incurred over the next five years,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) during a June 11 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s science program where he sought, unsuccessfully, to get a cost estimate like the one Bridenstine provided in the interview.

That estimate is unlikely to mitigate concerns that NASA may seek to cut other programs in future budgets to pay for Artemis. Gerstenmaier, at the NAC meeting, warned that future increases in the Artemis program’s budget were unlikely to be entirely new money added to the agency’s overall budget, requiring “cuts internal to the agency.” Bridenstine, though, has repeatedly stated that he will not “cannibalize” other parts of NASA, like science, to pay for Artemis.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, noted the budget amendment included language giving NASA the ability to transfer funds from other agency accounts to pay for Artemis. That provision “would give the administrator carte blanche authority to move funds among NASA’s accounts from this year forward if he determines the transfers are necessary in support of the establishment of the U.S. strategic presence on the moon,” she said.

“Why? Because the administration, it seems, may not request in the coming years what NASA actually needs for its crash program to get astronauts to the moon by 2024,” she added.

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...