NASA budget request amended, Moon program named Artemis
In a late-afternoon tweet, President Donald Trump announced NASA’s amended budget request for its Moon program would include an additional $1.6 billion.
Since Vice President Mike Pence challenged NASA to land the next man and first woman on the Moon by 2024—a full four years earlier than initially planned—the U.S. space agency has been working on an amendment to its fiscal year 2020 budget request, one that would be politically viable.
“Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars,” Trump tweeted. “I am updating my budget request to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!”
In the initial FY 2020 budget request released March 11, 2019, NASA was set to potentially get $21 billion, a number roughly $500 million shy of the final FY 2019 budget. Under the initial request, NASA was planning to return astronauts to the Moon by 2028 with much of the work over the next several years focusing on finishing the long-delayed Space Launch System rocket.
However, in a National Space Council speech on March 26, 2019, Pence said 2028 was “just not good enough,” and challenged NASA to do within five years using any means necessary.
“… we must accelerate the SLS program to meet this  objective,” Pence said during the March 26 speech. “But know this, the president has directed NASA and Administrator Jim Bridenstine to accomplish this goal by any means necessary.”
While there were initial studies conducted to find out if using commercial rockets instead of SLS would be more viable, it was ultimately concluded that, while an interesting idea for the future, SLS was deemed necessary in order to accomplish the vice president’s challenge.
Show me the (requested) money
NASA spent the last seven weeks figuring out how to modify the initial plan to prioritize speed. How much this would cost, however, publicly remained a mystery until May 13.
Moments after the president’s tweet, NASA announced a 7 p.m. EDT (11:00 GMT) teleconference that would go over the details of the amended budget request.
In general, the White House’s FY 2020 budget request would increase from $21 billion to $22.6 billion. No additional cuts to NASA’s existing programs were announced, outside of what was already proposed earlier this year.
The new request allocates $1 billion for NASA to “begin supporting the development of commercial human lunar landing systems” a full three years earlier than the initial plan. The system involves three stages: a transfer vehicle, a descent vehicle and an ascent vehicle.
Much like NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs for the International Space Station, the space agency plans to purchase this service from one or more commercial companies following its development program.
Under the current acquisition strategy, NASA will “purchase an integrated commercial lunar lander,” meaning it would be up to several companies to work together to form a system, which should be interchangeable using standards, such as the international docking standard.
NASA said it needs to begin awarding contracts by September or October of this year.
Meanwhile, the Lunar Gateway, which NASA says is key to both its near-term and long-term plans, is expected to have its funding reduced by $321 million to about $500 million, focusing on only the elements required for the 2024 human lunar landing.
As such, only the Power and Propulsion Element and a Utilization module would be required. Both are set to be procured and launched commercially.
For SLS and the Orion spacecraft, an additional $651 million would be added on top of the initially requested $3.04 billion.
Meanwhile, Exploration Technology and Science would see $132 million and $90 million in increases, respectively. The former would be used to “advance key precursor capabilities,” such as solar electric propulsion and demonstrating the conversion of polar ice into water, while the latter would be used to begin robotic exploration of the Moon’s polar regions before the eventually human landings at the south pole.
This initial $1.6 billion is not all that will be required before 2024, Bridenstine admits.
“This additional investment is a down payment on NASA’s efforts to land humans on the Moon by 2024,” Bridenstine said during the teleconference. “In the coming years, we will need additional funds. But this is a good amount that gets us out of the gate in a very strong fashion and sets us up for the future.”
Exactly how much it ultimately costs is still yet to be determined.
Creating a sustainable Moon program
All of this falls under President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-1, which directs NASA to return to the Moon with commercial and international partners in a sustainable fashion by utilizing lunar resources.
According to Bridenstine, everything NASA was planning to do by 2028 is still on the table. The main difference is some of the items in the latter half of the 10-year plan are being moved forward, while some longer-term items are being deferred. This essentially splits the 2028 plan into two parts: phase one is about speed, while phase two is about sustainability.
Assuming Congress signs off on this budget—and the next four to five budgets—the plan is to develop and launch the initial two-module Lunar Gateway, contract with companies to procure a human lunar lander system that would be assembled at the Gateway, and fly humans to the Moon aboard Orion on top of SLS.
The uncrewed Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) is likely to occur no earlier than 2021. EM-2 would be the first crewed Orion and would fly a free-return trajectory around the Moon in 2022 or 2023. Finally, in 2024, EM-3 would send the first people to the Gateway where two or more would use the assembled lander system to fly to the lunar surface.
While initial development money was already in the baseline FY 2020 request, other items such as a space suit and other equipment for surface operations will also need to be developed, built and tested.
Regardless, a lot still needs to happen in the near-term to retire the political risk to the program.
The Washington Post reported that the $1.6 billion in additional funding would actually come out of the Pell Grant program, a federal subsidy that provides college tuition funding to low-income students. However, according to the budget office, has a surplus of $9 billion.
According to the Associated Press, Office of Management and Budget officials insist that the re-allocation of part of the Pell Grant surplus would have no impact on those receiving grants.
From Apollo to Artemis
Bridenstine said this return to the Moon will require everything America has to offer: NASA’s SLS and Orion, commercial lunar landers, commercial rockets, etc.
“Our goal here is to build a program that gets us to the Moon as soon as possible that all of America can be proud of,” Bridenstine said.
In his closing remarks, the NASA administrator also announced the name of the program: Artemis. In Greek mythology, Artemis is the goddess of the Moon and twin sister of the god Apollo.
“I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man and first woman to the Moon,” Bridenstine said. “I have a daughter who is 11 years old and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role as the next women to go to the Moon.”
Video courtesy of NASA
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.