Paying for Artemis: How much will it cost to go back to the moon?
This article originally appeared in the June 10, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
Since U.S. Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to accelerate its timetable for returning humans to the surface of the moon by four years, the agency has focused on describing how it can achieve that goal. In the weeks and months that followed Pence’s March speech, NASA has laid out a rough plan for what it now calls the Artemis program, including what needs to be built — SLS and Orion, a “minimal” Gateway and lunar landers — and how it can come together in time for a 2024 landing.
What the agency has been less forthcoming about, though, is how much it will cost. On May 13, NASA finally released a long-awaited budget amendment for fiscal year 2020, seeking an additional $1.6 billion to support work on SLS, lunar landers and related technologies.
But that amount, the agency’s leaders acknowledge, is only a down payment on the total cost of Artemis. That total cost remains undisclosed, although NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine rejected reports it would cost up to $8 billion a year for five years.
“We expect in future years that it will be more than the current $1.6 billion for 2020. We all know that,” he said during a briefing about the budget amendment. “We are working day in and day out to come up with what those numbers are for the future years.”
Those overall cost estimates do exist, at least within NASA Headquarters. “We have those numbers, and we’re still discussing those internally,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations (HEO), said at a May 31 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council. “I’m hesitant to give you the number because we’re still in this deliberation.”
That hasn’t stopped people, like members of the council and its supporting committees, from seeking more details about its cost. “Isn’t it true that the funding for a development program kind of follows, I would say, almost a bell curve?” said Wayne Hale, chairman of the council’s human exploration and operations committee, at a May 28 meeting. “$1.6 billion is just a down payment, right?”
“We anticipate that we’ll need an increase in the budget in ’21, ’22, ’23, ’24,” replied Ken Bowersox, deputy associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “Within HEO, we’ve already laid out budget estimates, but we don’t talk about those publicly until we’ve gotten agreement from all our stakeholders that it’s OK to do that.”
“It looks reasonable,” he said of those still-internal budgets. “That’s all I can say at this point.”
What’s reasonable to one person or agency, though, may be unreasonable to another. That’s also true when it comes to where the money will come from. Bridenstine and others have emphasized that, for 2020, Artemis will be funded entirely with “new” money, in the form of the additional funding requested in the budget amendment, rather than transferring funding from elsewhere in the agency.
“It has been tried in the past that we cannibalize one part of NASA to fund another part of NASA,” Bridenstine said at an astronomy workshop in April. “That path does not work.”
He’s emphasized that point several times since then. “We’ve got support from a budget request that says we’re going to step forward and were going to fund this, and we’re not going to cannibalize NASA in order to fund it,” he told the NASA Advisory Council May 30.
Gerstenmaier, though, offered a different take, at least for later years. “When we get to ’21, I don’t think we’re going to be able to get the entire budget as new money to the top line,” or overall agency budget, he told the council the next day.
He suggested that, to fully fund Artemis in 2021 and beyond, some money will have to come from elsewhere in the agency, either within his own directorate or elsewhere at NASA. “We’re going to have to look for some efficiencies and make some cuts internal to the agency, and that’s where it’s going to be hard,” he said.
And, he hinted, potentially divisive. “Everybody can be on board when everything is going forward and there’s an infinite amount of new money coming into the agency.”
The official agency line, though, remains that Artemis will be funded without affecting other agency priorities, like science. “Everyone looks for efficiencies when managing budgets and that is what Mr. Gerstenmaier was talking about in his presentation before the NASA Advisory Council,” NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said in a June 5 statement. “However, the administrator said we would not raid science to pay for Artemis and that is the agency’s position.”
There’s still the matter of getting that additional funding for 2020. NASA and the White House released the budget amendment for 2020 just before the House Appropriations Committee released its version of a commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill that funds NASA. That bill did not incorporate the amended budget, and members of the committee did not reject or otherwise discuss the amendment during their markup of the bill later in the month.
That’s just a matter of bad timing, Bridenstine told the council, and not a rejection of that proposal. “Don’t get me wrong: there are people that have questions or people who have concerns, people who are interested in where the money is coming from,” he said, a reference to the White House’s proposal to pay for that additional funding from an existing surplus in the Pell Grant fund, which helps low-income students pay for college. That part of the proposal prompted widespread criticism within and outside Congress.
Bridenstine said he expects a warmer reception in the Senate, which has yet to mark up its version of a CJS spending bill. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, has indicated his willingness to support NASA’s plans.
Ultimately, the Senate’s bill will have to be reconciled with a House bill that added funding to NASA science programs and some elements of its exploration efforts, notably SLS and Orion. That’s a process that, based on recent history, will likely take months.
“People have said we’re in the second inning,” Bridenstine said at the council meeting of the appropriations process. “I’m here to tell you I think we’re in the top of the first inning.”
It may be the first inning, but NASA hasn’t been able to find the plate in its first pitches to Congress.
As part of the rollout of the accelerated lunar exploration plans in March, Bridenstine said NASA would seek to establish a “Moon to Mars Mission Directorate” that would be charged with implementing what is now called Artemis. It would be taken from the agency’s existing Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, potentially including some space technology or science programs as well.
“When we talk about operations and we talk about development, those are two very different kinds of capabilities” with different skill sets, he said at a NASA town hall meeting in April. “What we’re talking about here is a mission directorate focused on development.”
Such a reorganization required congressional approval. In a May 23 internal memo, though, Bridenstine said that Congress rejected the proposal, but didn’t explain why. Instead, “we will move forward under our current organizational structure within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.”
That decision led to the departure of Mark Sirangelo, an aerospace industry executive who joined NASA earlier in the year as a special assistant to the administrator to support planning for Artemis. He was widely expected to become associate administrator of that new mission directorate, had Congress approved it.
“Given NASA is no longer pursuing the new mission directorate, Mark has opted to pursue other opportunities,” Bridenstine wrote. Sources within the agency said that the two didn’t agree on how NASA should manage Artemis when Congress rejected the mission directorate.
In his first public comments since leaving the agency, a June 6 speech at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Arlington, Virginia, Sirangelo said he came to NASA to help it carry out that lunar landing goal “by any means necessary.”
“I spent the last three months as a special assistant helping to figure out three things: what is the path to the moon, how does it get funded and what, if any, restructuring will be necessary to make it happen,” he said. By the time he left in May, NASA had developed a plan and submitted the budget amendment for 2020, but was not able to make progress on the restructuring.
His departure has dismayed some in the space industry. “Given NASA’s past performance, there’s a lot of questions about whether or not NASA can meet that deadline,” said Robert Walker, the former chairman of the House Science Committee who served as the space policy adviser to the Trump campaign in 2016, in a June 5 speech at ISDC.
“NASA went to the Hill here recently and asked for a new directorate that would pull all these programs together, and basically Congress shook their heads and said, ‘No, we’re not going to go there,’” he said, prompting Sirangelo to leave NASA, “with probably very good reason.”
“He was a very, very good pick for that kind of program,” Walker said of Sirangelo. “I thought he was an inspired choice. But, Congress basically put the kibosh on trying to move ahead in that way.”
Asked why he thought Congress rejected the new directorate, Walker offered a one-word explanation: “Money.”
At the NASA Advisory Council meeting, Gerstenmaier supported the decision not create the new directorate. “That breaks down a lot of stovepipes that would have occurred between the two directorates. That allows us to innovate,” he said.
Instead, he said there will be organization changes within his directorate to ensure the Artemis program has clear authorities, including being able to work directly with other mission directorates like space technology. “You’ll see some changes coming on the organizational side.”
Sirangelo, in his ISDC speech, emphasized the need for what he called “strong central management” for Artemis, patterned on management of past major programs, both inside and outside NASA. “Typically it was one person working for political leadership who ran a small team of high-level technical, administrative, financial people who oversaw all elements of the project,” he said, citing as one example George Mueller, who managed Apollo for more than six years, through Apollo 11.
“In my view,” he concluded, “that’s what needs to happen for the moon program going forward.”