When the Trump administration tasked NASA with returning Americans, including “the first woman and the next man,” to the lunar surface by 2024, the schedule was thought to be challenging, to say the least.
The space agency has not had such a hard and fast deadline to undertake a challenging task since the Apollo program when President John F. Kennedy challenged it to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade.
The most serious challenge to Project Artemis, as it turns out, is political. To fulfill the 2024 deadline, NASA is going to have to have an extra $1.6 billion by the end of the fiscal year and a lot more in subsequent years.
The Republican-held Senate seems to be on board with paying out the extra money. The Democratic House is another matter.
Both the chair of the House Science Committee, Rep Bernice Johnson, and the chair of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Rep. Kendra Horn, have expressed doubts about the 2024 deadline. Neither has ruled it out, but both want further information.
In the meantime, the House version of the appropriations bill that funds NASA does not have the extra $1.6 billion. NASA’s hopes that the Senate version of the bill will have the extra money and that it will be preserved in the conference.
However, as of this writing, the Senate has not taken up its version of the appropriations bill that funds NASA. It seems very likely that the Congress will fund NASA as part of a continuing resolution at least for the first two or so months of the next fiscal year.
Unless the space agency is allowed to start work on critical parts of Artemis such as a lunar lander, the 2024 deadline comes into some doubt.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is well aware of these problems. He brings some unique skills to find a solution in the fact that he was a three-term member of Congress before he was appointed to lead NASA.
Indeed, his status as a politician caused some controversy during Bridenstine’s confirmation process. However, his experience may prove to be the salvation of Artemis and the plan to return to the moon in five years,
For three weeks in August, Bridenstine went on a tour of various NASA centers and University partners, taking local leaders and members of congress to each one. The idea was to publicize how Artemis is coming along and to educate local politicians about its benefits.
The visit to the NASA Ames Research Center along with two Democratic members of Congress, along with several local business leaders, yielded some crucial support for Artemis.
‘House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, along with dozens of women business leaders in Silicon Valley, joined Bridenstine to mark Women’s Equality Day Aug. 26 at Ames. The administrator spoke about the importance of America leading the way back to the Moon and putting the first woman on the lunar surface. Pelosi and Eshoo both expressed their support for NASA’s Artemis program. ‘I look forward to a woman astronaut landing on the Moon,’ Eshoo said, to which Pelosi added, ‘Our hopes are riding on you, Jim.’
The fact that Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, expressed support for Artemis is a potential game-changer. A House Speaker wields immense power.
Pelosi can, if she chooses, influence the committee chairs that determine what NASA does and how much money it has to do it and thus make sure that the space agency has the funding it needs to make a moon landing by 2024 happen.
Bridenstine’s strategic political goal for Artemis is to make support for the program bipartisan. The idea is that if both sides of the aisle in Congress support the effort to return humans to the moon, this time to build a permanent base, then it will be more sustainable.
The constant battles to cancel the project that blighted the early years of the program that became the International Space Station will have been avoided.
For proof that Bridenstine’s efforts have met with some success, one only has to point at his main nemesis during the confirmation fight, the former Sen. Bill Nelson from Florida. Nelson had led a full-throated effort to derail Bridenstine’s appointment.
Nelson ultimately failed in that effort and later loss his senate seat. Then Bridenstine made his old enemy a friend and appointed him to the NASA Advisory Committee, making use of the former senator’s expertise and experience.
Some have already labeled the feat a Jedi Master level accomplishment.