NASA remains committed to sending astronauts to the south pole of the moon by the end of 2024, but meeting that ambitious target will require Congress to fully fund development of a new moon lander in the agency’s fiscal 2021 budget, Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Monday.
In a Lunar Exploration Program Overview document released earlier Monday, the agency said its Artemis moon program will cost $28 billion through fiscal 2025, including $7.6 billion for the huge Boeing-managed Space Launch System rockets, ground systems and Lockheed Martin Orion crew capsules that will carry astronauts to and from the moon.
Another $16.2 billion is required to develop, test and launch the new moon landers the program is depending on to carry astronauts to the lunar surface, the single largest chunk of the Artemis program’s “phase 1” budget through 2025.
An artist’s impression of two Artemis astronauts working on the surface of the moon.
Phase 1 of the Artemis program covers three flights to the moon: an unpiloted test flight of the SLS booster and Orion capsule late next year; a piloted 10-day loop around the moon in 2023; and a piloted landing near the south pole of the moon in 2024. The budget also includes development of new spacesuits, the cost of resupply missions and development of exploration technologies.
The first Orion capsule is virtually complete and the first stage of the new SLS booster is being readied for a critical main engine test firing in October. If no major problems develop, the rocket and capsule should stay on track for their first launch late next year as planned.
But in a Monday afternoon teleconference, Bridenstine stressed that the 2024 moon landing target depends on Congress putting the requested $3.2 billion for lander development in NASA’s fiscal 2021 budget. The Senate has not yet passed a budget bill and the House only included $628 million for lander development in its version.
Three teams are currently developing competing designs for the Human Landing System, or HLS: SpaceX, which holds an initial $135 million NASA contract; Dynetics, currently funded at $253 million; and a “national team,” funded at $579 million, that includes Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.
NASA reveals Artemis moon program
Bridenstine said he remains optimistic Congress will fully fund lander development because of what he described as broad bipartisan support for the Artemis program.
He said he’s hopeful an expected continuing resolution that would freeze NASA’s budget at last year’s spending levels will be resolved in an “omnibus” spending bill before Christmas or, if the CR is extended, by early spring.
“It is critically important that we get that $3.2 billion,” he said. “And I think that if we can have that done before Christmas, we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing. … If we go beyond March, and we still don’t have the human landing system funded, it becomes increasingly more difficult.”
And what happens then?
“It’s really simple. If Congress doesn’t fund the moon landing program, then it won’t be achieved (in 2024), I mean it’s really that simple,” Bridenstine said. But he quickly added: “I want to be clear, if they push the funding off, our goal will be to get to the moon at the earliest possible opportunity.”
NASA’s planned Gateway space station in orbit around the moon would serve as a staging base for Artemis astronauts heading to the surface. In this visualization, an Orion crew capsule is on final approach.
“Speed is still of the essence and sustainability follows speed,” he told reporters. “So what I would tell you is if they keep delaying the funding, we will go to the moon at the earliest possible opportunity.”
The Trump administration strongly supports a return to the moon and moved up an initial 2028 landing target to 2024. Phase 1 of the program as now envisioned calls for three flights to the moon by the end of 2024. Phase 2 is focused on establishing a sustainable presence on the lunar surface by the end of the decade.
Along with SLS rockets, Orion capsules and lunar landers, NASA’s Artemis architecture also calls for building a small space station known as Gateway in a high orbit around the moon, one that can be altered as required to permit astronauts to land at virtually any point on the moon.
Maxar Technologies is designing Gateway’s power and propulsion element while Northrop Grumman is designing a module known as the habitation and logistics outpost, or HALO. The European Space Agency is expected to provide a refueling and telecommunications element known as ESPRIT. Other modules may be added later.
The original Artemis architecture called for Orion crew capsules to dock at the Gateway, where the crew could transfer to an already docked lander for descent to the lunar surface. But use of Gateway is not required for the first moon landing, and the landers are being designed to dock directly with Orion capsules if desired.
Despite recent social media posts to the contrary, Bridenstine said NASA remains committed to sending the first Artemis crew to the moon’s south pole where ice is believed to be present in permanently shadowed craters.
“We’re going to the south pole,” he said. “There’s no discussion of anything other than that.”
If ice is, in fact, accessible, astronauts eventually could use solar power to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen, providing rocket fuel, air and water for long-duration stays and eventual flights to Mars.