NASA has been talking about going back to the moon for a long time, but plans have been accelerated in the last few years. Under the current administration, NASA has been told to push up its timeline and get a crewed mission to the moon by 2024 instead of 2028. That’s just five years away, and the agency now says it will need at least $20 billion in additional funding to make it happen.
NASA currently gets about $20 billion annually. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine estimates that getting to the moon within five years calls for $20-30 billion in additional funding. That works out to another five or six billion dollars in NASA’s annual budget. Adding 25-30 percent to NASA’s budget is far from a sure thing.
NASA will have to go through Congress to get that money, and that money has to come from somewhere. So far, NASA has asked for $1.6 billion in additional funding. The administration is reportedly looking to take that money from the Pell Grants program, which helps low-income students afford college. Needless to say, there’s opposition to that plan.
The new moon landing program (dubbed Artemis) will make use of launch vehicles and technologies that are either languishing in extended development or simply don’t exist yet. The Space Launch System (SLS) should have cost about $9.7 billion with operations beginning in 2017. Currently, NASA hopes to fly the first test missions next year after spending more than $12 billion. The Orion spacecraft that will carry crew to and from the moon has also been slow to develop, but it’s running ahead of the SLS that is supposed to carry it. NASA may end up using commercial rockets for the upcoming Orion test.
NASA is also in the very early stages of planning the Gateway station, which will remain in orbit of the moon and provide transport to and from the lunar surface. NASA has just ordered the first module for the station, a Maxar-built power and propulsion element.
Another wrinkle in the funding battle is President Trump’s recent Twitter tirade downplaying the importance of returning to the moon. In the tweet, Trump said NASA “should be focused on the much bigger things” like going to Mars. Bridenstine stresses that getting a sustainable human presence on and around the moon is a necessary stepping stone to a Mars mission.
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