Blue Origin human lunar lander
A lander concept by a "national team" led by Blue Origin and including Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Credit: Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — NASA used the release of a report on the Artemis program to seek full funding of the effort to return humans to the moon, warning that they had six months to secure its budget to keep a 2024 landing on schedule.

NASA published a report Sept. 21 outlining its lunar exploration plans, including an initial phase to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024 followed by a series of follow-up missions for what the agency calls “sustainable lunar exploration” and as a precursor for later human missions to Mars.

The report largely summarized existing plans, but included in an appendix a table outlining its budget requirements for implementing “Phase 1” of Artemis that goes through the Artemis 3 human lunar landing in 2024. NASA projected spending $28 billion from fiscal year 2021 through 2025 on just that first phase, a total that includes work on the Space Launch System, Orion, Exploration Ground Systems, the Human Landing System (HLS) landing program, and various supporting science and technology development efforts.

HLS is by far the largest program in that total, accounting for nearly $16.2 billion over the five-year period. Its funding is also the most in jeopardy, after the House passed an appropriations bill in July that provided the program with a little more than $600 million for fiscal year 2021, a fraction of the agency’s request of more than $3.2 billion.

“It is critically important that we get that $3.2 billion,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a call with reporters to discuss the report. He said he was “exceptionally grateful” that the House included at least some funding for HLS in its bill, but made it clear the agency needed full funding for HLS to keep plans for a human return to the moon by 2024 on track.

A final decision on funding for HLS, as well as the rest of NASA and the overall federal government, may still be months away. The 2021 fiscal year starts Oct. 1, but the Senate has yet to introduce, let alone pass, its versions of appropriations bills for the new fiscal year. A Senate appropriations subcommittee is scheduled to hold a hearing Sept. 23 to discuss NASA’s budget proposal, a hearing that, in normal circumstances, usually takes place in the spring.

The House, meanwhile, introduced Sept. 21 a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the federal government at 2020 levels from the start of the 2021 fiscal year through Dec. 11. Bridenstine said his best-case scenario was one where the House and Senate worked out a final spending bill after the November election, reaching a compromise that secures full funding for HLS.

“If we can have that done before Christmas, we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing,” Bridenstine said.

However, there is no guarantee that Congress will finalize spending bills by December. The postelection “lame duck” session of Congress could be especially tumultuous this year given elections whose outcomes may not be clear immediately after Election Day, ongoing debates about pandemic relief spending bills and what may be a highly contentious confirmation process for a new Supreme Court justice after the death Sept. 18 of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Bridenstine cautioned that, if a CR is extended into calendar year 2021, it will be more difficult to keep the HLS program on schedule. NASA currently plans to select in early 2021 one or more of the three companies now working on the program — Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX — to proceed into full-scale lander development, a schedule threatened if funding is not provided or remains uncertain.

“If we go to March without the $3.2 billion, it becomes more difficult,” he said. “We’re still within the realm of possibility because we do have our work underway right now.”

“If we go beyond March and we still don’t have the Human Landing System funded,” he added, “it becomes increasingly more difficult.” At that point, he suggested later in the call, NASA would have to push the goal of returning humans to the moon to “the earliest possible opportunity” rather than by 2024.

The funding table in the report did not explicitly include work on the lunar Gateway. “A rapid return to the Moon requires the agency to minimize the number of systems involved with landing humans on the surface by 2024, so while future lunar landings will use the Gateway as a staging point in lunar orbit for missions to the surface, the agency’s procurement for a commercially provided HLS left the door open for proposals that didn’t use Gateway on early Artemis missions,” the report stated.

Bridenstine said in the call that NASA still expected the first two elements of the Gateway, the Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), to launch in late 2023 and be available to support the Artemis 3 mission in 2024. “We’re not making it a requirement” for that mission, he said.

However, he emphasized the lunar Gateway was still required for the later phase of Artemis. “The Gateway is critically important for the sustainable mission that we have in front of us,” he said.

Bridenstine also used the call to address the possibility that the Artemis 3 mission would land some place other than the south pole of the moon. A week earlier, speaking at a lunar conference, he suggested that NASA might consider sending the mission elsewhere, such as an Apollo landing site, if it turned out for some reason that a landing at the south pole was not feasible.

At a Sept. 16 Washington Space Business Roundtable webinar, Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said the landing site for Artemis 3 was still undecided. “We’re really looking at a bunch of different options for making a decision. I don’t want to have to give a spoiler alert,” she said when asked about the possibility of not landing at the south pole of the moon.

In the call with reporters, though, Bridenstine was adamant that Artemis 3 will still go to the south polar regions, which may have water ice deposits that are of scientific interest and could also sustain future exploration missions.

“To be clear, we’re going to the south pole,” he said, chalking up comments about going elsewhere to “chatter on social media” after his conference talk last week. “There is no talk or trades or anything else about anything other than going to the south pole at NASA.”

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...