Foust Forward | Selling a fuzzy vision of going back to the moon

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the May 6, 2019 issue.

After a little more than a year in office, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has demonstrated his willingness to talk about the agency to diverse audiences. Over the course of a few days in late April, for example, he spoke to students at an event that included a video link with the International Space Station, scientists at a planetary defense conference and assorted fans, some in costume, at a science fiction convention.

His toughest audience, though, is on Capitol Hill. It’s been nearly six weeks since Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech at a National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, charged NASA with landing humans on the moon by 2024. Since then, the space industry, as well as members of Congress, have been seeking answers to two questions: how will NASA carry this out, and for how much?

The answer to the first question is starting to take shape. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, sketched out an approach at a meeting of two National Academies committees April 30. That concept involves the accelerated development of a lunar lander as well as a “minimal” lunar Gateway consisting of just a power and propulsion module and a docking node.

That plan, Gerstenmaier said, would allow astronauts to land on the moon on Exploration Mission 3, the third SLS/Orion flight and only the second to carry astronauts. They would not spend long on the moon or be able to do a lot there, though. “I would say, for the initial 2024 landing, it’s going to be pretty spartan,” he cautioned.

Even the Gateway in that minimal form might not survive. “It may not be in the initial critical path to getting to the first landing in 2024,” said Ryan Whitley, director of civil space policy at the National Space Council, at the same National Academies meeting earlier in the day. He backtracked later, saying a minimal Gateway “is part of the 2024 solution” for now, but suggested that debate wasn’t closed.

While NASA is sharing details about how to get there, it’s keeping quiet about how much it will cost. A day after Gerstenmaier’s talk, Bridenstine appeared before Senate appropriators about the agency’s fiscal year 2020 budget request. That didn’t include, though, changes the 2024 lunar landing will impose on it. “We are not in a position right now to say what that budget number is,” he said in his opening remarks.

It appeared at the hearing that senators’ patience was wearing thin. “Someone in the administration is going to be requesting additional dollars,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who chairs the subcommittee that funds NASA. “Do we know what the amount of those additional dollars will be?”

All Bridenstine would say was that reports that NASA would seek an additional $8 billion a year for five years were wrong. “It is nowhere close to that amount,” he said, but declined to be more specific while the White House hashes out what he called a “unified administration position.”

Senators, pressed for time because of pending votes and frustrated with the lack of details, got Bridenstine to agree to a future meeting with them once that revised budget proposal is released. There will be other, similar audiences with Congress in the weeks to come, including a House space subcommittee hearing May 8.

Bridenstine has engendered a lot of political goodwill in Congress since becoming administrator. Even Democrats who opposed his nomination have expressed their appreciation of his leadership of the agency. But that will be put to the test once that revised budget hits the Hill and members debate whether landing humans on the moon in 2024 is worth the expense.

“I have never had a job more political than the one that I’m currently in,” Bridenstine, elected to three terms in the House, said in yet another speech last month, this time at an astrophysics workshop. That job may soon get a lot more political.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.