At the beginning of every administration, the space community scrambles for clues about its plans for NASA. Given the low priority of space policy in the grander political scheme, that means looking for any discussion of space by the White House, no matter what the context. Every photo op and every mention in a speech is scrutinized and magnified, inevitably way out of proportion.
Nearly two months into the Biden administration, we now know that the president… likes Mars 2020. After the successful landing of Perseverance on Mars Feb. 18, President Biden called the acting NASA administrator, Steve Jurczyk, as well as members of the mission team. He referred to it in a speech at a European security conference as an example of international cooperation, as it’s part of a Mars sample return program that includes ESA.
Biden also mentioned it in a March 11 speech about the pandemic, calling the landing “another example of the extraordinary American ingenuity, commitment, and belief in science and one another.” The success of a mission named Perseverance is a metaphor that any politician would embrace in these times, but those comments don’t necessarily mean much for the administration’s space plans.
Beyond that series of remarks about Perseverance, the most substantive comment the administration has made on civil space came Feb. 4, when White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration supported the Artemis program. Psaki called plans to return humans to the lunar surface “very exciting” but didn’t say much else about what the administration will retain, or change, about the program.
More details will come in next few months, with the release of the administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request and the selection of a NASA administrator (rumors in early March of an imminent nomination of former senator Bill Nelson came and went without an announcement.) But the next big signal may come sooner, when NASA picks the company, or companies, that will move ahead in the Human Landing System (HLS) program.
NASA selected three teams, led by Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX, last April for initial studies of human lunar lander concepts. The agency is now reviewing proposals from them to fund full-scale development of those landers and initial demonstration missions. “We’re getting down to the wire” on those evaluations, said Mark Kirasich, director of the advanced exploration systems division at NASA, during a panel discussion at the 47th Spaceport Summit in late February. He predicted the agency would make awards “within just the next few weeks.”
Those awards will provide insights on how, and when, NASA plans to return humans to the moon. On the one hand, Kirasich and other NASA officials have made clear they want to select more than one company. “Competition — having multiple suppliers for us — is an extremely important principle. It’s on our minds,” he said.
That desire for competition will have to be balanced with a budget that, for fiscal year 2021, provided the HLS program only a quarter of the agency’s request for $3.3 billion. That shortfall all but killed any hope of a 2024 human landing, the goal of the Trump administration. How NASA proceeds with HLS will give an idea of how much that deadline will be pushed back.
That funding challenge may be no easier this year. “We’ll have our work cut out for us with limited funds to garner the greatest level of support that we can,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), ranking member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, in an interview just after the Perseverance landing.
“I’m a supporter of the Artemis program, but we did make decisions that other things, in addition to Artemis, needed to be funded,” he added. “I’m anxious to see what the administration’s priorities are and anxious to know what the priorities are of a new administrator of NASA.”
Lots of people in the space community are anxious to see what NASA will do with HLS, Artemis and its other programs. They just need a little more perseverance.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the March 15, 2021 issue.