Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), chair of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said Oct. 16 it would be "irresponsible" to provide initial funding for NASA's Artemis program without knowing its total cost. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA said he remains unconvinced of the need to accelerate NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon because of its uncertain cost.

At a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee, Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee, expressed frustration at the lack of information from NASA on the overall costs of its Artemis program that now seeks to land humans on the moon by 2024, four years earlier than the timeline in the agency’s original fiscal year 2020 budget request.

In May, the White House submitted a budget amendment that sought an additional $1.6 billion as a “down payment” for the new 2024 goal, but NASA has declined to give an estimate of the overall cost of Artemis through 2024. Serrano noted that his committee had “repeatedly asked” for cost estimates, but has yet to receive a response.

“It’s hard to justify any extra spending on this effort in the current fiscal year when we don’t know the costs down the road,” he said. In his opening statement, he concluded it would be best to NASA to stick to the earlier 2028 date “in order to have a successful, safe and cost-effective mission for the benefit of the American people and the world.”

Bridenstine, in comments similar to those he made at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in July, said the agency was still working with the National Space Council and Office of Management and Budget on the upcoming fiscal year 2021 budget proposal and overall cost estimates for Artemis, which he said are still not ready for distribution.

“We want to give you the outyears,” Bridenstine said, a reference to the cost estimates for Artemis from 2021 through 2024. Once the administration reaches a consensus on those figures, “we want to get it to you as absolutely soon as possible.” But as he said in July, those figures might not be available until the fiscal year 2021 budget request is released in February 2020.

Bridenstine also reiterated his intent not to “cannibalize” other parts of the agency to pay for Artemis. “If, when we go to the moon, we’re doing so by cutting the science mission directorate of NASA, that will create a partisan divide that we do not want to have as an agency,” he said. “The goal should be additional resources, not cannibalizing one part of NASA to feed another part of NASA.”

Serrano, though, appeared to be more concerned about taking money from other parts of the federal government to pay for Artemis. “I don’t want to go to the moon by taking money from people who can’t afford to survive in this society to the level that they should survive in this society,” he said, suggesting that programs like Pell Grants and food stamps could be targeted to pay for Artemis.

Other Democratic members expressed similar concerns about the uncertain costs of Artemis. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) likened it to buying a car when a salesman provides only the down payment and not the total price. “That’s not acceptable,” he said. “You need to know the total cost.”

“Failure is not an option when pursuing an endeavor of this magnitude,” said Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) “I want to help NASA meet its goal of 2024, but I need to see a schedule and cost estimate to understand how best to do that.”

Republican members of the committee, by contrast, focused their questions not on the cost of Artemis but instead on its utilization of NASA capabilities like the SLS versus commercial alternatives, be they launch vehicles or lunar landers. “I’m concerned that NASA could undercut its flexibility and incur unnecessary costs by foregoing opportunities to leverage existing assets in an attempt to simultaneously foster a commercial space economy,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Aderholt pressed Bridenstine and Ken Bowersox, the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations, about accelerating the SLS production rate to two vehicles a year and bringing forward the introduction of the larger Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) for SLS, arguing that it could provide a more efficient approach to lunar landing missions than a series of commercial rockets.

Bridenstine and Bowersox responded that they were skeptical that the production rate for SLS could be increased in the near future. “Given our current rate of production, we will have three SLS’s available” by 2024, Bridenstine said, “and the third one would be for Artemis 3, that takes us to the moon in 2024. I think that is fully within the realm of possibility, but a lot of things have to go right to make that happen.”

They also noted the announcement NASA made shortly before the hearing that the agency was working with Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS core stage, to finalize a contract within the next year for as many as 10 core stages, with the introduction of the EUS for the Artemis 4 mission. That future contract, NASA said, will offer “substantial savings” for future core stages, but didn’t specify the amount of savings.

As the hearing neared the end, Serrano appeared unwilling to change his skeptical view of Artemis. “Unless we know how much this is going to cost at the end, it would be irresponsible for us to take the first step,” he said. Getting that cost estimate next February would be too late, he added. “We need to know earlier, much earlier.”

Serrano’s remarks early in the hearing led to online comments that he was, in effect, killing Artemis, something he rejected at the end of the hearing. “I don’t have that kind of power. I didn’t kill the mission,” he said to Bridenstine. “I just asked some questions that I know you know need to be answered before we move forward, or not.”

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...