FYI: Science Policy News

Lunar Science Plans Develop as NASA Pushes for Crewed Landing in 2024

MAY 17, 2019
The Trump administration has amended its latest budget request for NASA, seeking additional funds for its bid to return astronauts to the Moon in 2024. Meanwhile, the agency’s lunar science plans are focusing heavily on the lunar south pole region, where the crewed landing would take place.
Will Thomas
Spencer R. Weart Director of Research in History, Policy, and Culture

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate head Bill Gerstenmaier, acting Space Technology Mission Directorate head Jim Reuter, and Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen

At an employee town hall event on May 14, NASA Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen, at right, discusses science opportunities presented by the agency’s lunar exploration program. With him, from left, are NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate head Bill Gerstenmaier, and acting Space Technology Mission Directorate head Jim Reuter.

(Image credit – NASA / Joel Kowsky)

On May 13, the Trump administration amended its latest budget request for NASA, seeking an extra $1.6 billion to support landing “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon in 2024 — four years ahead of schedule. NASA has named the landing program “Artemis,” after the Greek goddess of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo.

The planned site for the Artemis landing is the Moon’s south polar region, where water ice deposits have been detected . These deposits could potentially be used for life support and as a feedstock for hydrogen rocket fuel. Through the budget amendment, the administration is seeking an additional $90 million for a robotic science rover to explore the south pole in advance of the crewed landing.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have been seeking more details about NASA’s lunar program since Vice President Mike Pence announced on March 26 that the administration was moving up the landing date. It remains uncertain if Congress will agree to support the accelerated timetable.

NASA continues to plan robust lunar science program

While many details of NASA’s accelerated human exploration program are unresolved, the agenda for its revitalized lunar science program is coming into clearer view.

Following Pence’s announcement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has repeatedly insisted the exploration program would not “cannibalize” other agency activities, including its science missions. NASA has also continued with its plans to launch scientific instrumentation and other small payloads aboard commercially provided lunar landers. Speaking to a National Academies Space Studies Board meeting on May 1, Steve Clarke, who is leading NASA’s integration of lunar science and exploration activities, said he expects the agency will award its first task order for the commercial lander program this month.

At the same meeting, NASA scientist Ben Bussey said some of the small missions will focus on the polar regions where the crewed landing will be made, while others will focus on science targets elsewhere, such as young volcanic features and lunar swirls .

Clarke and Bussey also said NASA expects the program to continue well into the future at an initial rate of one or two small missions every year. Noting the lunar science community has lacked opportunities to make observations on the lunar surface, Bussey suggested the program would inspire researchers to propose new kinds of studies, remarking,

I think it could be extremely exciting, once we start to have this regular cadence of missions, and they start to realize that they can propose instruments and actually get them all over the lunar surface with a regular cadence. We will start to see a real avalanche of lunar science.

The target date for the first rover mission is 2022. Bussey said the mission will aim to provide direct observations of water ice and other such “polar volatiles” that are deposited in permanently shadowed craters. He also said the rover and subsequent crewed missions will conduct important geological science. The Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin region is a low-elevation region that was produced by a large and unusually old impact and could contain clues about the early history of the Moon, Earth, and the Solar System.

Bussey observed that astronauts would make unique contributions to the science, such as by making careful sample selections and setting up complex instrumentation. He also noted that robotic and crewed missions would together accomplish the science goals of two of the three lunar missions highlighted in the last planetary science decadal survey : a South Pole-Aitken Basin sample return mission and the Lunar Polar Volatiles Explorer concept.

Speaking at a symposium convened in April by the Universities Space Research Association, National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace said the ultimate vision is to establish a “lunar field station” near the south pole. He described it as an “access point to the rest of the lunar surface,” and compared it to McMurdo Station in Antarctica, which the U.S. uses as a base for deploying scientific teams across that continent.

Discussing priorities, Pace noted they would be tied to both exploration needs and researchers’ interests, saying, “We’re going to be going for lots of reasons, of which science is but one. But, on the other hand, we want to make sure that what science we do there is in fact driven by the community assessments and their priorities, the most interesting things to find.”

NASA’s lunar science plans will be up for further discussion next week at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee.

Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard assembles equipment on the lunar surface in February 1971.

Apollo 14 astronaut Alan Shepard assembles equipment on the lunar surface in February 1971.

(Image credit – NASA / Edgar Mitchell)

Accelerated schedule still needs congressional support

Whether the Artemis program can achieve its goals hinges on resolving doubts about its technical feasibility and on obtaining the needed resources from Congress.

Before the Trump administration submitted its budget request amendment, speculations about the additional cost requirements for a 2024 crewed landing ranged between $3 billion and $8 billion per year. Asked at a May 14 town hall event whether $1.6 billion would be sufficient, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine replied, “It is enough for the year 2020.” Noting that budget requirements would increase as the program ramps up, he added, “This is a good, out-of-the-gate first start, a very honest proposal from the administration that keeps us all together moving forward in, I think, a bipartisan way.”

On whether NASA can accomplish the task, Bridenstine said, “I have no doubt that we can achieve this by 2024 if it is up to the technical capabilities of this agency.” Justifying the agency’s accelerated timetable, he suggested the greater concern is with the capriciousness of political support, which he blamed for the abandonment of previous NASA programs to return astronauts to the Moon. He remarked,

It’s always because priorities change, budgets change, administrations change, Congresses change. So, how do we retire as much political risk as possible? We accelerate the program. Basically, the shorter the program is, the less time it takes, the less political risk we endure.

However, the administration has not yet convinced Congress to begin funding the accelerated program. Today, just four days after the amendment’s submission, House appropriators advanced a draft spending bill for NASA that does not include the requested boost for human exploration.

Congress could nevertheless adopt the proposal as negotiations over NASA’s appropriation continue. On May 15, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee for NASA, tweeted support for providing NASA with “resources to land the first woman on the Moon and build lasting infrastructure to support missions to Mars and beyond.” And Congress need not adopt the administration’s politically inflammatory proposal to offset funding for the program by taking surplus funds from the Pell Grant student financial aid program.

Ultimately, the biggest challenge may be overcoming doubts that NASA can successfully execute the administration’s snap decision to shave four years from the schedule of a human exploration program plagued by delays and cost overruns. Responding to the administration’s amended budget request, House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) wrote in a statement ,

We don’t know how much money will be required to meet the arbitrary 2024 Moon landing deadline or how that money will be spent. We don’t know how much additional money will subsequently be required to turn the crash program … into a sustainable exploration program that will lead to Mars. And we don’t know what NASA’s technical plan for its lunar program is.

However, Johnson did not reject the proposal, concluding, “I am going to reserve judgment on the overall Moon landing plan until Congress is provided with more concrete information on the proposed lunar initiative.”
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