As Yogi Berra once said, “it’s like déjà vu all over again.”
Last week, the Vice President of the United States, who chairs the National Space Council, told NASA that the President is directing the agency to land people back on the Moon by 2024, “by any means necessary.”
Today, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee – the committee in charge of authorizing NASA spending – about the administration’s $20 billion fiscal year 2020 budget request for NASA – which does not include funds for a return to the Moon by 2024.
In fact, the 2020 budget request calls for a return to the Moon by 2028.
Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics noted in her opening statement for today’s hearing, in September 2018, “a full year and a half AFTER its Congressionally-directed due date, the Committee received the report directed in Section 435 of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017.”
According to Rep. Horn, this report – the NASA Exploration Campaign Report – “is a high-level strategy…mainly a plan for a plan…and may not ultimately play a substantive role in efforts to place humans in Mars orbit by 2033. Further specificity of NASA’s long-term plans in a public document would help Congress and other public policy officials make informed decisions over the coming decades.”
According to the Exploration Campaign Report, “The National Space Exploration Campaign strategy is ready. It includes direction from the White House and Congress, with input from industry, academia, international partners and, most importantly, the American public. It is not a repeat of efforts of the past 50 years. The National Space Exploration Campaign does not assume or require significant funding increases.”
Today, Bridenstine told the House committee that meeting the President’s 2024 goal would require a supplemental budget request.
According to the Exploration Campaign Report, “NASA is building a plan for Americans to orbit the Moon, starting in 2023, and land astronauts on the surface no later than the late 2020s…. By the late 2020s, a lunar lander capable of transporting crews and cargo will begin sortie missions to the surface of the Moon.”
Those of us who have been working in the space community for some time (for me, since 1983), we’ve heard “bold” calls over and over again for a return to the Moon and human missions to Mars. I have a large stack of reports in my office on Moon-Mars proposals and plans.
In 1986, President Reagan received a report from a National Commission on Space (NCoS – which I worked for) outlining goals for the next 20 years of U.S. space exploration. NCoS offered a rationale for exploring and settling the solar system and a “vision” of making the solar system “the home of humanity.” At the same time, NCoS noted, “financial realities will dictate the pace at which we proceed.”
By 2006, we had not proceeded very far along the way to executing the NCoS vision.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush directed NASA to develop what became the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which would send people back to the Moon and on to Mars. According to NASA’s “Report of the 90-Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars” (November 1989), “The basic mission sequence is clear”: first build a space station, then “return to the Moon to stay early in the next century, and then journey to Mars” by 2019.
In 1991, a “Synthesis Group” tasked with reporting on the Space Exploration Initiative produced four possible architectures for the SEI.
Funding did not materialize.
In 2004, President George W. Bush announced his “Vision for Space Exploration”, directing NASA to develop a Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2008 “and to conduct the first [crewed] mission no later than 2014. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired. But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds…. Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface to research and prepare for future human exploration. Using the Crew Exploration Vehicle, we will undertake extended human missions to the moon as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.”
And…here we are.
In her opening statement for this morning’s hearing with Bridenstine, Science, Space, and Technology Committee chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) got right to the point:
“You have stated that NASA’s fiscal year 2020 budget request is a good one, apparently in part because the President didn’t cut your budget as much as he is proposing to cut the rest of America’s federal R&D investments, including misguided and harmful cuts to DOE’s and NSF’s research budgets. I am not persuaded. In fact, I find both this NASA budget request and your written testimony for today’s hearing to be disappointing and inadequate.”
Rep. Johnson indicated that the budget request as it stands will likely not make it through Congress. “The President’s budget request for FY 2020 proposes the same ill-advised cuts to important NASA science and education initiatives that it did last year—cuts which Congress has already considered and rejected in the FY 2019 appropriations act.” She and other members of the committee criticized proposals to de-fund key NASA STEM activities—especially those that support students – the WFIRST mission – “the highest ranked astrophysics decadal priority” and “two critical Earth Science missions.” These cuts “made no sense last year,” Rep. Johnson said, “and they make no sense this year. I have little doubt that those cuts will be rejected by Congress once again.”
“And what is the justification for this crash program?” Johnson went on. “To quote the Vice President again, it’s because ‘we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher.’ Moreover, according to the Vice President, the Chinese have ‘revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground,’ whatever that means. The simple truth is that we are not in a space race to get to the Moon. We won that race a half-century ago, as this year’s commemoration of Apollo 11 makes clear. And using outdated Cold War rhetoric about an adversary seizing the lunar strategic high ground only begs the question of why if that is the Vice President’s fear, the Department of Defense with its more than $700 billion budget request, doesn’t seem to share that fear and isn’t tasked with preventing it from coming to pass…. Given the absence of an urgent crisis, it would be the height of irresponsibility for the Vice President of the United States to direct NASA to land astronauts on the Moon within the next five years without knowing what it will cost, how achievable the schedule is, and how it will impact NASA’s other programs.”
I heartily agree with Rep. Johnson.
Rep. Horn had this to say in her statement:
“Let’s take a moment to review the last three to four months. First, the Administration shut down the Federal Government for a total of 35 days…. [M]any projects will experience delays and some level of cost increase due to the disruption. Second, in a delayed release of the FY 2020 budget request due to the shutdown, the Administration proposed a more ambitious Moon program– to send humans to the lunar surface by 2028 — while also proposing to cut a half billion dollars from the agency’s topline relative to the FY 2019 enacted appropriation. Third, just two weeks AFTER the Administration released its FY 2020 request for NASA, the Vice President announced that ‘it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years’….Fourth, last Friday, again just weeks AFTER releasing the FY 2020 Request, the Committee received notice of NASA’s request for a major reorganization of NASA’s technology and exploration activities that NASA is proposing through a ‘reprogramming request’ to the Committee on Appropriations.”
(Are you confused? I am.)
Horn went on, “This request would create a new Moon to Mars Mission Directorate that would subsume the space technology program into a Directorate focused on large exploration development programs like the Gateway. NASA’s request proposes other major organizational changes that, if approved, would bypass this Committee’s authorizing role in considering such drastic reorganizational changes.”
“These issues are not partisan,” she said. “We have learned over several Congresses and Administrations that attempting to implement major programs through fits and starts creates confusion and often delays progress. Changes in direction also present challenges for the Committee’s work toward providing effective guidance and policy through the reauthorization process.”
She is right on.
Finally, I will note that a recent poll by a reputable organization, the Pew Research Center, showed that respondents ranked returning people to the Moon and sending people to Mars #8 and #9 – next to last and last – on a list of nine priorities for NASA.
Perhaps the worst aspect of these stop-and-start plans is that so many people work diligently on them, only to see them shelved. NASA wastes hundreds of millions of dollars on studies mandated by the White House and Congress for projects and programs that don’t receive adequate funding. (I wonder if we’ll ever know how much money NASA invested in the now-defunct Asteroid Initiative.) It’s too bad.