Written by Kenneth Chang
NASA officials on Monday evening unveiled an updated budget request to Congress, seeking more than $1 billion in additional funding in what they called a down payment to accelerate the return of astronauts to the moon by 2024.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, also said the mission back to the moon would be called Artemis. In Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo, whose name was used by NASA for the series of spacecraft that first landed Americans on the moon in 1969.
But the revision is just a request, and Congress must decide whether to back the Trump administration’s plan to race back to the lunar surface.
NASA had been aiming for a moon return in 2028 until Vice President Mike Pence announced in March that the administration wanted to push that ahead to 2024, during what could be a second term for President Donald Trump.
Some additional details were presented in a news conference by Bridenstine and other senior NASA officials after Trump first announced the proposed increase on Twitter.
NASA’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, is $21.5 billion. In March, the president’s original budget request for the 2020 fiscal year sought to cut spending on NASA by $500 million. It now is seeking to add $1.1 billion, a swing of $1.6 billion.
The added money would include $651 million for the Space Launch System, the new large rocket NASA is developing, and the Orion capsule that would take astronauts to the moon and other deep-space destinations. NASA is also seeking $1 billion to begin development of a commercial landing system to take astronauts to the moon’s surface.
Part of that cost would be offset by scaling back and delaying plans for Gateway, an outpost in orbit around the moon.
NASA is also seeking $132 million for developing technologies like converting ice within craters at the moon’s poles to water and $90 million for robotic exploration of the moon.
Bridenstine said that even higher increases would be needed in future years and that NASA was still figuring how much that would be. He described the current request as a “down payment.”
No cuts would be made to other NASA programs, said Bridenstine, who emphasized that the agency’s financing for the International Space Station and science programs would be secure. He added that he did not know what cuts might be made to other parts of the federal budget to pay for the moon program.
Under the plan, a mission to land on the moon would take place during the third launch of the Space Launch System. Astronauts, including the first woman to walk on the moon, Bridenstine said, would first stop at the orbiting lunar outpost. They would then take a lander to the surface near its south pole, where frozen water exists within the craters.
NASA is looking to commercial companies to develop the lander rather than doing that work itself. One possible option was revealed last week by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon and the owner of the rocket company Blue Origin.
Even before the revised budget numbers were announced, some members of Congress appeared to be skeptical of the Trump administration’s proposal. At a hearing this month, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said she wanted to better understand the reasoning behind the push.
She noted that the Trump administration was seeking steep cuts in science research at other agencies, including $1 billion from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, $4.5 billion from the Department of Energy and $300 million from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“Based on the limited information provided to Congress, it is impossible to judge the merits of the president’s budget amendment,” Johnson said Monday in a statement. “We don’t how much money will be required in total to meet the arbitrary 2024 Moon landing deadline or how that money will be spent.”
Jack O. Burns, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado who in March spoke in favor of an early return to the moon before Pence and the National Space Council, said he was surprised the request was not higher.
“I had expected at least $2 billion supplemental, maybe more,” he said in an email.
Burns said he thought NASA needs a budget of about $25 billion a year to achieve its lunar goal.
Phil Larson, a former White House space adviser during the Obama administration, was skeptical that Congress would go along with any increase. “It is tough to see any kind of new spending being welcomed with open arms on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Bridenstine said he believed Trump’s faster schedule increases the chances of actually returning to the moon, at least in terms of politics.
Incoming presidents often make major shifts in space policy. President Barack Obama canceled an earlier moon program started by President George W. Bush, and Trump is now changing what Obama had wanted.
“NASA has a history of seeing these starts and stops,” Bridenstine said. “It is important for us to get strong bipartisan support from the beginning.”