POTOMAC, Md. — Insisting that all options are under consideration, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said April 1 that he hopes to develop an initial plan within the next couple of weeks for getting astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024.
In an interview after a speech at a workshop here on proposed future astrophysics missions, Bridenstine said the plan under development will leverage earlier plans that called for a human lunar landing by 2028, but was open to achieving the new goal of 2024 “by any means necessary.”
“What we’re doing right now is trying to assess very quickly what would be required to achieve the end state of boots on the moon in 2024,” he said. “The plan is all there. A lot of the pieces of the architecture are already there. We’re just going to have to pull a number of them forward.”
Since Vice President Mike Pence announced the new goal of landing humans at the south pole of the moon by 2024 in his March 26 speech in Huntsville, Alabama, there have been few details released by NASA about how it can carry out that accelerated timeline.
Pence’s speech, though, suggested to many that NASA had such a plan already. “But Administrator Bridenstine told me, five minutes ago, we now have a plan to return to the moon,” Pence said. Bridenstine said that plan Pence mentioned referred to the earlier goal of humans on the moon by 2028.
NASA is working quickly to put together that new plan for a 2024 landing. “We’ve got to go fast: a couple of weeks,” Bridenstine said. NASA will then work with the White House, including the Office of Management and Budget, to develop a “consolidated position from the administration” on that approach, and its cost, before delivering it to Congress.
In a town hall meeting with NASA employees earlier in the day at NASA Headquarters, Bridenstine said he was open to almost any approach to achieve the 2024 goal. “I’m taking nothing off the table, and we’re not compromising safety,” he said. “Anything we don’t need to do we can delay. There’s future launches, there’s future things we can test, but right now, how do we get boots on the moon in 2024?”
As an example of “taking nothing off the table,” Bridenstine discussed at the town hall meeting the two-week study that looked into commercial alternatives to the Space Launch System for the Exploration Mission (EM) 1 flight. That examined a wide range of options, including use of both United Launch Alliance’s Delta 4 Heavy and SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, but most suffered from a number of technical or logistical issues that kept them from being able to accelerate the schedule for EM-1.
Bridenstine discussed one specific option, involving a Falcon Heavy launching an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and Orion spacecraft, that could be revisited in the future. “There is a solution here that could potentially work for the future,” he said. “It would require time, it would require cost, and there is risk involved, but guess what? If we’re going to land boots on the moon in 2024, we have time and we have the ability to accept some risk and make some modifications.”
“There is nothing sacred here that is off the table,” he argued at the town hall meeting. He added, though, that the “best option” to getting to the moon as soon as possible remained the SLS, and that NASA was continuing efforts to find ways to accelerate its development.
Bridenstine, in his remarks at The Space Astrophysics Landscape for the 2020s and Beyond meeting here, assured an audience of astronomers that, to carry out the new goal, NASA would seek additional overall funding and not take money from other parts of the agency, like science.
“We will need more resources if we’re going to the moon in 2024,” he said. In both that speech and the earlier town hall meeting, he said he anticipated NASA would start the 2020 fiscal year in October on a continuing resolution, which funds programs at the same level as the previous fiscal year and typically does not allow new programs to start. He said NASA would seek an “anomaly,” or exception, in that continuing resolution to allow the agency to move ahead on its accelerated lunar plans.
“It has been tried in the past that we ‘cannibalize’ one part of NASA to fund another part of NASA,” he said. “You have my commitment, and if you watched the National Space Council you heard me say, that path does not work. It has been tried before, and you have an administrator who will work as hard as possible to make that is not on the agenda for the future.”
Bridenstine was speaking to an audience wary about such cuts given that, for the second year in a row, NASA’s budget request proposed terminating the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the next large astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. Bridenstine said that decision was linked to cost overruns with JWST and not the agency’s exploration plans.
“It is in essence the casualty of James Webb,” he said of WFIRST. He added, though, that NASA would continue to work on it in the current fiscal year using the funding allocated by Congress. “While the budget request may zero it out, what we do at NASA is we follow the law. And if the law says we’re going to do WFIRST, guess what? We’re doing WFIRST, and we’re going to do it with everything we’ve got.”