Getting astronauts on the Moon by 2024 may be technically feasible, but the cost of doing so could force cuts elsewhere in the agency. (credit: NASA)
The Artemis program is emerging into the sunlight of congressional scrutiny. That has been the critical stage for all new US human space exploration initiatives since the announcement of the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) in 1989. That program crashed and burned in large measure due to its $400 billion price tag. Congress was uninterested in pursuing such a dream at that price. Space as a realm for human exploration is much touted in the abstract, but asking for money runs into the politics of the federal budget. NASA’s history is one of big dreams and even larger budgets, so congressional hesitation if not hostility is common. A dollar for the Moon means a dollar less for one’s constituents, unless the member has a NASA installation locally. The money must come somewhere, a lesson space scientists have learned bitterly.
Subsequent initiatives, such as the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) and its more confused successor, ultimately embodied in the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft, have suffered delays and cost overruns. The cancellation of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) program left SLS and Orion behind as orphans that have been incorporated into the Artemis program. This decision contains the possibility that other options from the commercial sector may eventually replace the SLS. Its first flight has slipped until 2021, and further delays would endanger the 2024 first lunar landing objective set by the Trump, an announcement accompanied by threats of unspecified actions if NASA fails to deliver.
Since 2004, however, NASA’s quest has focused on deep space exploration, simply operations beyond LEO. Whether the Moon was the first destination or not generated much debate but relatively little resolution. The Trump Administration’s take on human space exploration was the Moon first and then on to Mars. Recently, though, there were mixed messages when the president tweeted that Mars was the goal and not to waste too much time on lunar operations. NASA’s response was one of reassurance that the lunar activities were all in support of reaching the prize, Mars.
The sequence of Moon-then-Mars has been argued as the best one because it provides a midpoint, the Moon, whereas a straight shot at Mars increases the likelihood for program failure. Whether the 2024 goal is optimal compared to the prior 2028 goal is another issue since that was simply moving the goal posts up four years. All this depends more on politics than technology since space programs typically do not rank as first-tier priorities.
What’s more important is how Congress takes up consideration of the cost question and from whence the funding will flow. The White House has requested an additional $1.6 billion in 2020 for Artemis. What is interesting is the tone-deaf nature of the administration’s announcement: the funding being proposed for reprograming for the accelerated lunar program is to come from surplus Pell grant funds. Whether the funds are in fact left over does not negate the image that an elitist program (Moon exploration) is to be funded from the poorer strata of the US population. Given Democratic party control over the House of Representatives, that request is unlikely to be popular one. This raises yet again the specter of cuts to other space-related programs in order to fund the Artemis program if other potential sources are off limits.
The late Professor James Van Allen wrote an article in Scientific American in the 1980s lamenting the damage inflicted on the space sciences by budget transfers to support Space Shuttle development. Van Allen’s prominence came from the first successful US satellite in 1958, whose payload included detectors developed by Van Allen. That flight identified what are now called the Van Allen radiation belts, a space science first on the United States first orbital flight. When Van Allen wrote his article, the shuttle R&D program was behind schedule with growing budget demands. NASA also actively shuffled funds among its accounts to hide the extent of the cost overruns from outside scrutiny. One immediate result, according to Van Allen, was the decimation of a generation of space scientists. Given the declining number of missions due to funding cuts, a scientist whose program was cancelled had no future since the next opportunity might not come for years, if ever. They were the innocents being slaughtered through no fault of their own in the service of human spaceflight.
The Space Shuttle was not a space exploration vehicle. Instead, its primary function was to support a space station through construction and resupply operations, a program that did not exist yet. For several decades, NASA struggled to make the shuttle relevant by carrying space science experiments and a few industrial research projects to orbit and back to Earth, or spacecraft for launch. Using the shuttle to launch payloads into orbit and beyond raised costs dramatically because all payloads had to be crew-rated, meaning safe enough for a crew to fly with the payload. The Challenger disaster in January 1986 further reinforced the pressure on the shuttle program, since no longer would shuttles launch commercial and military satellites to orbit. The International Space Station (ISS) provided a purpose, which ended in 2011. The shuttles were deemed too dangerous, Columbia having being lost during reentry in 2003. To continue flying, shuttles required extensive modifications that were deemed too costly given the potential benefit.
A second bite at the Moon
NASA struggled to move beyond Apollo first, then the Space Shuttle and the ISS. Each was a mission that, in some sense, had an end point. Landing on the lunar surface, flying the shuttle repeatedly, and completing the ISS marked an end but none apparently contain a magical quality that put NASA on the road to the next phase of US human space exploration. Moving past the ISS proved difficult. The Obama Administration attempted to set a path toward routine outward human space exploration: that is, space exploration generally rather than focused on a specific objective. The result was the asteroid mission. This evolved from a mission to an asteroid to one where the asteroid is moved closer to the Moon and Earth. The objective was to gain flight experience doing longer duration missions before sitting forth to Mars. Such an approach was open-ended, and this indefinite nature failed to gain support politically. Most felt that NASA needed a more concrete mission approach. President Obama had rejected a lunar mission as simply a repeat rather than as expansive in nature at least as his original announcement envisioned.
Regardless, when the Trump administration entered office in 2017, the ARM mission was cancelled in part due to the SLS developmental delays. The new approach was first a return to the Moon, subsequently followed by missions to Mars. Operations on the lunar surface would gain valuable experience in long-duration missions, like the Obama asteroid missions but in an environment somewhat similar to Mars. In comparison to the Apollo program, the new effort, labeled the Artemis Program (the sister of Apollo in Roman mythology), differed in that commercial space entities will develop, build, and operate many of the technologies. While to some this implied the demise of the SLS and the Orion, likely available commercial launch vehicles lack capacity to lift large payloads to lunar orbit. All this was programmed to reach the lunar surface in 2028. However, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the US effort would be accelerated to reach the lunar surface in 2024.
Why such an acceleration? China in early 2019 landed the Chang’e 4 with a rover, Yutu 2, on the far side of the Moon. Such a mission signaled the emergence of China as the leading space rival to the United States. The Chinese exploit drew global attention. For some, this solidified the public view that China was a spacefaring nation on the rise, while the United States appeared stalled even falling behind rising space powers. One response, like 1961 and the announcement of the Apollo program, was seeking another demonstration of American prowess in conducting space operations. Pence’s announcement that the US lunar landing program was to be accelerated from a 2028 landing to one in 2024, sought to reestablish an American human presence on the Moon. The parallels to Apollo were further by naming the new program Artemis, sister of Apollo.
Such a clearly political announcement, invoking the glorious past, dramatically raised the pressure on NASA to deliver results on schedule. Unfortunately, the announcement came in an era when the private sector was moving to prominence while congressional and public support was lacking. A public opinion survey done in May 2019 found that “return astronauts to the Moon” ranked seventh out of ninw options given respondents answering the question, “How important is it for the United States space program to do each of the following?” Its level of support was 23 percent compared to 68 percent for “monitor asteroids, comets, and other events in space that could impact Earth.” The complete table can be seen below.
Returning to the lunar surface was supported generally in the space community (although in a longer timeframe) but the urgency failed to materialize, at least immediately. This means that any expanded or accelerated lunar landing program will compete with other national budget priorities. The most likely congressional budget scenario is continued support for NASA, but no major increase to accommodate an accelerated Artemis program. NASA will confront pressures to reach the goal earlier due to the national prestige argument now linked to the project.
All this translates into a search for the requisite funds to keep the program on track. History does not necessarily predict the future but can provide a guide for understanding why courses of action are chosen. Looking for funding involves decisions on what is most important to the agency and its mission. In that balancing of priorities, space science advocates see peril. The Apollo program was emblematic of an earlier transcendental moment in human history: the first humans to set foot on another celestial body. That organizational experience stamped human spaceflight as the agency’s raison d’être. NASA continues to foster other areas of space activity but all are secondary to the prime directive, sustaining and expanding the scope of human spaceflight especially exploration.
This central reality is what Dr. Van Allen was castigating when the shuttle program was under development in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Behind schedule and over budget, the Space Shuttle, if it was to fly, required funding from elsewhere. NASA leadership decided that space science was one pot of money that could be raided for necessary funding. At one level, their view was much like that of President Dwight D. Eisenhower earlier, who said basically that there was no rush to go to space because it was going to be there in the future and was not worth the extra cost.
Enthusiasm among space advocates for such “new” space endeavors is almost guaranteed, but that community of supporters is small. Their enthusiasm reflects their obscurity in the larger business of government: they are just happy to be mentioned. The public can be impressed by what is happening and vaguely supportive. The only constituency that matters is political and found in Congress. Unfortunately, their interest is tied to constituency interests. If critical members of Congress are strongly supportive, a program will be funded and supported to completion. Such support has not appeared in either house of Congress or among the leadership, they have more things to work on.
The Artemis program is already confronting obstacles in the House of Representatives. The most recent action in terms of budget was to deny any increase in a continuing resolution, a short-term spending bill, needed to keep the government operating after October 1. The Artemis program’s political vulnerability can be seen in the pushing and shoving over the decision to place management for the lunar lander program at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama instead of the Johnson Space Center in Texas. Important members of the Texas congressional delegation protested that decision. For most of Congress, support for Artemis will not be that great if they lack NASA facilities. The point is that, despite administration rhetoric, funding may not be as bountiful as some might expect. NASA, confronting such shortfalls and under pressure from the president, will have took internally for funding. Thus, the hunt begins among budget categories for “excess” funding to be moved to support what is important. Some congressional members claim that such cuts will not happen this time. But, given similar claims that funding would not be diverted for border wall construction, only time and events will tell.
- AP-NORC Poll, “Space Exploration: Attitudes toward the U.S. Space Program,” (June 25, 2019).
- John M. Logsdon, “Ten Presidents and NASA,” (June 27, 2019).
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