Casey DreierMay 13, 2019

A Crash Program or Modest Proposal?

The White House released a long-awaited supplemental budget request for NASA today. It proposes an additional $1.6 billion for an accelerated human spaceflight effort to land on the Moon in 2024. This boosts the President's budget request for NASA to $22.6 billion in fiscal year 2020, which is approximately $1.1 billion or 5% more than the amount provided by Congress last year.

The funds would allow the newly-christened Project Artemis to "begin supporting the development of commercial human lunar landing systems" 3 years sooner than originally planned, to address delays in the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule programs, to invest in technology development related to lunar surface operations, and to support additional science missions at the south pole of the Moon.

In March, after Vice President Pence directed NASA to speed up its lunar efforts using "any means necessary," I wrote the following:

"How seriously are we to take this announcement? Look to the supplemental request. If we see a significant increase in funding, we should take it seriously. If not, we can't. Rhetoric is cheap. The billions of dollars necessary to accelerate a lunar program are not."

The modest 5% increase for NASA proposed next year, although a welcome bump, does not indicate a serious commitment to landing humans on the Moon in 2024.

Today's announcement lacked details regarding the long-term cost of the accelerated program. It did not even detail how much additional funding would be required over the next 5 years, which is the standard planning period for NASA programs.

In the weeks leading up to this announcement, I spoke with an experienced aerospace engineer and manager who is intimately familiar with NASA. I asked them, what's a good gut-check budget for landing on the Moon by 2024?

They and I independently estimated that it would require $4 to $5 billion per year for 5 years, or between $20 billion and $25 billion total, to get NASA astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. Eric Berger at ArsTechnica reported that some internal estimates at NASA were upwards of $40 billion. This supplemental budget, assuming it represents the start of an annual commitment that grows at 1% per year (consistent with NASA's previous budget proposal), suggests that the White House is willing to add a mere $9 billion over 5 years to achieve this accelerated goal. That's not nothing, but a return to the Moon in 2024 it ain't.

I was initially disappointed by this proposal. I've mellowed a bit as I've considered it further, however. Taken individually, the proposed investments could be productive (though your feelings on the value of further investment in SLS and Orion may differ). The investments make sense in the context of a decade-long lunar return commitment. I am pleased that no other NASA programs were proposed to be cut to enable Project Artemis.

The White House's budget office has to adhere to budget caps, however, so any increase to NASA's budget has to be "offset" by proposing cuts somewhere else. That somewhere else is apparently the Pell Grant fund, which helps low-income students attend college. The fund is technically running a surplus so no current participants would be affected, but the optics of such a proposal are, at best, terrible. This political framing, which is not only provocative to the administration's political opposition but also fundamentally unnecessary, is a mistake that will undermine the Administration's effort to succeed at the Moon. Even more worrisome, by proposing to use funds from a popular education program important to the Democratic party, it could incite new partisan opposition to space exploration, an outcome that any space advocate should abhor.

Fortunately, Congress does not have to abide by their own spending caps. In fact, Congress has waived them every year since 2013. If Congress once again raises these caps, we can have Pell Grants, fully funded scientific research across the government, and a modest increase to human spaceflight efforts. The White House would be wise to support a bipartisan deal on more equitable domestic spending in order to secure its priorities in lunar exploration.

There is another political stumbling block facing NASA. A Democratic House of Representatives is loath to provide a political "win" of a Moon landing in the final year of President Trump's second term (should he win re-election). Practically speaking, if Congress grants this budget increase to NASA as proposed, the likelihood of a successful 2024 landing is so low as to effectively remove a 2024 Moon landing as a political issue. Congress is free to evaluate this proposal on its merits: as an investment in human spaceflight beyond Earth.

Despite the soaring rhetoric, this is a modest proposal that, as proposed, consumes funding from unpalatable sources. It need not be so. Ironically, the very attention bestowed upon Project Artemis by the White House acts to undermine its chances of success. Had this been proposed within the regular budget request in March, it would have been considered within the normal process of congressional appropriations. Hopefully, it still will be seen as the positive, uplifting, and unifying opportunity that it is, and not as a target its opponents will cast it to be.

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