Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chairwoman of the House Science Committee, questioned the need to speed up a human return to the moon during an April 2 hearing. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

WASHINGTON — Scientists and the chair of a key House committee expressed concern at a June 11 hearing that NASA could raid science programs to pay for its accelerated return to the moon.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, raised the issue in an opening statement during a hearing by the committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s science programs. She cited language in the administration’s budget amendment, sent to Congress a month ago, that proposed giving NASA the authority to transfer funding from other accounts, such as science, if needed for what the agency now calls the Artemis program.

“It perplexes me as to why the administration would even consider raiding science to pay for a moon program,” she said after giving several examples of discoveries by NASA missions. “Yet, that may be where NASA is headed.”

She said that proposed authority may be a sign that the White House won’t request sufficient new funding to pay for Artemis without taking money from elsewhere in the agency. “Starving science to fund human exploration is not the answer,” she said.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said on multiple occasions that he would not “cannibalize” science program to pay for Artemis. “That path does not work,” he said at an astrophysics workshop in April.

However, at a May 31 meeting of NASA Advisory Council, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said he doubted all the money needed for Artemis in fiscal year 2021 and beyond would be “new money” added to the agency’s overall budget. “We’re going to have to look for some efficiencies and make some cuts internal to the agency,” he said, comments Johnson referenced in her remarks.

NASA insists will not cut science to pay for Artemis. “However, the administrator said we would not raid science to pay for Artemis and that is the agency’s position,” NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said June 5 in response to Gerstenmaier’s comments.

Scientists testifying at the hearing were not convinced. “This is a disturbing request,” said Mark Sykes, chief executive and director of the Planetary Science Institute, of that transfer authority. “It appears to allow for the complete reorganization of the agency, including expunging space science if desired, without any congressional oversight. This must be rejected.”

David Spergel, a Princeton University astrophysicist and former chair of the Space Studies Board, said he was concerned funding would be redirected within science programs to focus on the moon, which he deemed a lower priority based on the latest planetary science decadal survey.

“The planetary decadal survey, however, did not identify a major investment in studying the lifeless moon as one of its highest priorities,” he said. “I’m concerned that high priority [Science Mission Directorate] programs will be terminated to enable lower priority science and accelerating the lunar program.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said planning for the fiscal year 2021 budget proposal is just getting started within the agency. “I have not been directed, or am I engaged in, any scenario planning with a massive downside to the science program,” he said.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) pressed Zurbuchen for the total cost of the Artemis program through the first landing in 2024 or 2028, when the agency hopes to have a “sustainable” lunar presence. Zurbuchen said those cost estimates, which largely involve programs outside his directorate, are still being developed.

Brooks was clearly frustrated with the lack of cost details. “For us in Congress to be able to grapple with these things, we need some idea of how much of a cost is expected to be incurred over the next five years,” he said when asking, unsuccessfully, for a range of potential costs. “Or do we literally have no idea what we’re getting into?”

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...