NASA expected to detail costs for fast-track moon landing program next month

Jim Morhard testifies before a Senate committee in 2018 during his confirmation hearing to begin NASA’s deputy administrator. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA will release a budget profile with a cost estimate for the agency’s Artemis moon landing program in February in conjunction with the White House’s fiscal year 2021 budget request, according to NASA’s deputy administrator.

An official estimate for the total cost for NASA’s accelerated Artemis moon landing program, in which the agency aims to return humans to the lunar surface in 2024, has not been released since the 2024 schedule goal was announced by Vice President Mike Pence last March.

Before Pence’s announcement, NASA was on a pace to land crews on the moon in 2028.

The lack of budget figures drew the ire of lawmakers last year, who balked at providing NASA with all of the extra money the agency’s leadership said it needed to begin accelerating development for a 2024 crewed moon landing.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said then that a more detailed accounting of the project costs for the Artemis program will be released with the fiscal year 2021 budget request in February.

Jim Morhard, NASA’s deputy administrator, confirmed in a Jan. 8 interview with Spaceflight Now that budget figures for the Artemis program’s projected cost through at least 2024 are still due to come out with the fiscal year 2021 funding plan. The Trump administration’s funding proposal is scheduled to be submitted to Congress on Feb. 10.

Congress will have to pass an appropriations bill with the final budget for fiscal 2021, a process that was not completed for fiscal year 2020 — which began Oct. 1 — until December.

“We’re going to make this work,” Morhard said. “We’re working on the ’21 budget that’s going to come out next month, and I think you’ll see the fruits of what Jim Bridenstine has done working with the White House and OMB (Office of Management and Budget) as far as what we need and where we’re heading.”

Congress appropriated $600 million of the $1 billion NASA requested to kick off a fast-track lunar lander development effort for the Artemis 3 mission, the mission designated as the new program’s first attempt to land astronauts on the moon.

NASA has not confirmed how the funding shortfall will impact its earlier plans to select up to four industry teams to launch 10-month studies for a human-rated lunar lander, followed by a down-select of two companies to proceed into full-scale development for crewed missions in 2024 and 2025.

The lunar lander is the final major piece of the lunar landing architecture still in the procurement process.

According to the agency’s current planning, NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and the Orion crew capsule — in development by teams led by Boeing and Lockheed Martin since 2011 and 2006, respectively — will carry astronauts away from Earth and to the vicinity of the moon, where the Orion will dock with a mini-space station called the Gateway. NASA has agreements with Maxar and Northrop Grumman to provide the core power and habitation modules for the Gateway.

Three industry teams led by Blue Origin, Boeing and Dynetics have confirmed they submitted proposals for the Artemis program’s Human Landing System. SpaceX is widely believed to have also bid to build a lunar lander for NASA, but the company has not confirmed its participation in the competition.

The Artemis 1 mission slated for 2021 will be the first unpiloted test flight of the Space Launch System, which will send an Orion capsule toward the moon for a multi-week mission in lunar orbit before it returns to Earth. The Artemis 2 mission will be the first SLS/Orion flight with astronauts, who will fly around the moon and back to Earth.

In the meantime, elements of the Gateway outpost and the lunar lander will head toward the moon on commercial rockets, ready for arrival of the Artemis 3 crew in 2024 after launching on the third SLS/Orion flight.

The Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission, an unpiloted flight to orbit the moon and return to Earth, is seen inside a test chamber in December at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. Credit: NASA/Radislav Sinyak

Bridenstine told CNN in June that accomplishing a landing on the moon with astronauts in 2024 could cost $20 to $30 billion over NASA’s regular funding levels. But he later suggested the mission could be accomplished with less federal money, perhaps with additional financial investments from industry.

Rep. Jose Serrano, D-New York, chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies, which writes the House version of bills that set NASA’s funding levels.

In October, Serrano said he was concerned about the cost of the accelerated lunar landing program.

“To date, NASA has not provided the committee with a full cost estimate, despite repeated requests,” Serrano said.

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pennsylvania, likened NASA’s request for extra funding last year for the Artemis program to buying a car with knowledge of the down payment, but not the car’s total cost.

“When you go to buy a car, and there’s a car salesman standing there, what do you ask him?” Cartwright said in October. “You ask him how much is the car, right? And when he comes to you and says, ‘Well it’s only going be $2,000 in the first year,’ you say, ‘Yeah, but I’m asking you how much the car is?’”

“Thats not acceptable,” Cartwright said. “You need to know the total cost.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, chairs the Senate subcommittee that drafts NASA budget bills.

He told Aerospace America last month that he supported the Trump administration’s goal to land humans on the moon in 2024. It would the first time astronauts have landed on the moon since 1972.

Moran said he’s eager to see the Artemis program’s full cost estimate, according to Aerospace America.

“I wish we had those numbers right now,” Moran told the publication last month.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.