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House spending panel skeptical of NASA moon landing plans

Appropriators question push by White House to move up 2028 timeline by four years

Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat, said he is "extremely concerned" by the plan to move up the moon landing timeline by four years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Jose E. Serrano, a New York Democrat, said he is "extremely concerned" by the plan to move up the moon landing timeline by four years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday appeared wary of providing NASA with the additional money it wants to land the next Americans on the moon by 2024, after its administrator testified the agency likely won’t have a detailed cost estimate on speeding up its timetable until it submits its fiscal 2021 budget request in February.

The back-and-forth questioning by the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee was part of a monthslong debate between Congress and the Trump administration about whether it’s actually possible to push up the earlier 2028 timeline.

[The latest in NASA fashion: Photo of the Day]

Subcommittee Chairman José E. Serrano, a New York Democrat, said that it would be “irresponsible” for appropriators to take the first step of adding $1.6 billion to NASA’s budget request for fiscal 2020 to accelerate the Artemis program. The White House requested the extra money in May — two months after the initial budget release — with NASA calling it a “down payment” that’s “required to achieve that bold objective” of returning to the Moon four years early.

Democrats have argued that the effort is politically timed to coincide with a potential second Trump term.

“Overall, I remain extremely concerned by the proposed advancement by four years of this mission,” Serrano said, adding that some estimates place the cost at an additional $25 billion. “The eyes of the world are upon us. We cannot afford to fail. Therefore, I believe that it is better to use the original NASA schedule of 2028 in order to have a successful, safe and cost-effective mission.”

Serrano later said that his comments “didn’t kill the mission” because he doesn’t have that power, but that he was asking the questions that NASA knows need to be answered.

The subcommittee’s top Republican, Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, was generally more supportive of the Trump administration’s plans to speed up the schedule. But he also asked detailed questions about potential delays to the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion capsule and the Gateway, which is designed to orbit the moon and serve as a relay to the surface for astronauts.

“The Artemis program cannot afford to suffer the kinds of delays, the setbacks and the cost of returns, which have sometimes become what is known as business as usual in our space program,” Aderholt said. “On the contrary, the Artemis era is supposed to be characterized by unparalleled accountability and agility.”

Ever since the Trump administration announced that it wanted to return astronauts to the moon sooner, appropriators from both parties and both chambers have attempted to get a breakdown of how much that would cost during the upcoming fiscal years.

That likely won’t be provided to Congress until the Trump administration submits its fiscal 2021 budget request in February, according to NASA Administrator James F. Bridenstine.

“I think at the end, we want to give you those numbers, we aren’t ready just yet. But certainly, we want to move forward,” Bridenstine told the subcommittee.

Funding woes

At the moment, lawmakers in both chambers don’t appear to have the appetite to provide NASA’s full funding request for the expedited moon mission.

If NASA doesn’t get the full amount, which is currently absent in both the House and the Senate Commerce-Justice-Science spending bills (HR 3055, S 2584), Bridenstine said there are a “range of possibilities” about how the plan would evolve.

“If we look at what the Senate mark was, it wasn’t the entire budget request for the entire Artemis program and because of that it reduces the probability of success to land within five years, but it can’t be ruled out either,” Bridenstine said. “It’s achievable. It’s just the level of risk goes up — and I’m not talking about risk to life, I’m talking about risk to the schedule.”

Part of the reason the schedule has been accelerated by several years is fears about China getting there first, a concern on display during the hearing.

“China is moving fast and they are going to the moon,” Bridenstine said in opening remarks. “We have political risk that we need to deal with. It’s political risk from programs taking too long. It’s political risk from a geopolitical standpoint, making sure that our partners are with us and not with them,” he said, adding that he believes those “are important reasons to move faster.”

The concern that America could lose its role as the top spacefaring nation was echoed by full committee ranking member Kay Granger, R-Texas, who appeared concerned about the national security implications of the longer timeline.

“China is ahead of us in space and I think we know this,” she said. “People that are supportive of this request have said to me that if we don’t move now, China will own space, and who owns space owns the Earth and our technology.”

Serrano and Aderholt are expected to work with their Senate counterparts in the coming weeks to try to work out a bipartisan, bicameral agreement on the fiscal 2020 spending bill.

The House bill didn’t include any of the additional requested funding, in large part because the administration sent that request days before the panel released its fiscal 2020 bill.

The Senate bill, which has broad bipartisan support, included some but not all of the additional funding. It appears to trim about $174 million from the administration’s request for NASA’s Exploration account.

“With the funding provided, NASA will be able to make significant progress in fulfilling that accelerated goal of returning astronauts, including the first woman, to the moon by 2024,” Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the subcommittee’s chairman, said during the subcommittee markup in September.

In the report accompanying the Senate bill, appropriators wrote that the White House’s new timeframe is a “significant acceleration” of the earlier 2028 goal.

“While there is support for the mission, it is difficult to weigh the impacts of the accelerated mission on the overall budget of NASA with only a single year budget proposal,” according to the report. “In the interim, the Committee has provided funds to allow for NASA to advance its human exploration program and awaits further definition of the program and its estimated associated costs.”

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