Artemis astronauts engage in lunar surface operations a short distance from a generic lander and rover in this NASA artist’s concept.

WASHINGTON — The chair of the House space subcommittee says NASA has still not convinced her that the agency has a viable plan to return humans to the moon by 2024.

Speaking at a Wilson Center event Oct. 6 about the geopolitics of space, Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.) said she was waiting to see a plan from NASA that explained how the agency’s Artemis program could meet its goal of a human return to the lunar surface in four years.

“We still haven’t seen a plan that shows us we can get to the moon on the 2024 schedule,” she said, including the ability of NASA to manage “multiple, simultaneous, large” development programs and the various demonstrations leading up to that crewed landing.

Such a plan was an element of a NASA authorization bill that she introduced in January with other leaders of the House Science Committee from both parties. That bill put a human return to the moon squarely on a path for a human mission to Mars as soon as 2033, and required NASA to provide plans for “the minimum set of human and robotic lunar surface activities” needed to achieve that goal as well as a five-year budget.

NASA has provided the latter, releasing Sept. 22 a report that included a budget projection of $28 billion required from 2021 through 2025 for landing astronauts on the moon on the Artemis 3 mission in 2024. That report also outlined the Artemis program, including that initial spring to the moon followed by what it calls a “sustainable” second phase of exploration.

Horn didn’t comment directly on that report, but indicated it did not provide sufficient detail for her. “I think we should have bold and aggressive goals. We also need the plan to go along with them to build that confidence,” she said. “We still need to see a plan that shows that it is actually possible.”

Another provision of that authorization bill sought to revamp NASA’s approach to developing the landers that will carry astronauts to the lunar surface. NASA’s Human Landing System program is using public private partnerships with the intent to procure landing services, rather than the landers themselves. The House bill, though, directs NASA to use a more conventional contracting approach, retaining “full ownership” of the lander and requiring both uncrewed and crewed test flights before it is used on a human landing mission.

Horn said she was still seeking the “right balance” between government- and commercial-led programs in space exploration, but suggested she was not convinced of NASA’s approach for the HLS program. “The path to commercial cargo and resupply was not necessarily a smooth one. It wasn’t necessarily a short path,” she said, discussing the extended development of commercial cargo and crew capabilities.

That bill, though, has been stalled in the House Science Committee since being favorably reported by her subcommittee in late January, in part because of the coronavirus pandemic. Horn said in June that the full committee was preparing to take up the bill, although more than three months later that markup has not occurred.

Horn said she was hopeful that Congress will take action after the Nov. 3 election. “I think we’re hopefully going to get some movement on it after the election,” she said. “We’re going to continue to work on it. Hopefully after the election we’ll see some progress. I’m going to keep working on it. I don’t think it’s gone.”

She added that she did not expect any major policy shifts in space exploration should the Democratic nominee for president, former Vice President Joe Biden, win the election. Biden has said little about space policy, but the party’s platform approved this summer included language endorsing “NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars,” although without explicitly backing the 2024 deadline set by the current administration.

“I think we’re going to see some continuation of space exploration plans,” she said, citing her authorization bill as a “good model” for doing so. “I don’t think you’re going to see massive shifts.”

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...