NASA's proposal to land astronauts on the moon by 2024 faces a 58% funding shortfall in the federal spending bill passed in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, kneecapping space agency plans for a sprint back to the lunar surface.
As part of NASA's larger $22.6 billion budget, lawmakers cut the $1.4 billion the space agency had requested to build a lunar lander down to $600 million. The shortfall complicates plans to land NASA astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024, an idea first proposed by Vice President Mike Pence in March.
The NASA budget includes almost exactly the same amount of money as the administration requested, noted Space Policy Online, "but with different priorities than the Trump Administration. Landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 does not seem to be one of them." In congressional testimony this summer, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said not receiving funding for a lunar lander would be devastating to the moon landing mission called Artemis, which would land the first woman astronaut on the moon.
"It's not dead, but it is in critical condition," space policy expert John Logsdon of George Washington University told BuzzFeed News. "You can't land on the moon without a lander."
In May, President Trump had tweeted support for Artemis, estimated to cost from $20 billion to $30 billion. But he also undercut that message in a June tweet saying NASA "should NOT be talking about going to the Moon - We did that 50 years ago."
According to the budget, which still awaits expected passage by the US Senate and a signature from Trump, only 40% of the approved money for a lunar landing and orbiting lunar station could be spent by NASA until it submits a detailed budget for Artemis to Congress in February. Bridenstine promised to provide such details in testimony to Congress in October.
At that hearing, NASA spending committee chair Rep. José Serrano of New York expressed little interest in funding a moon landing driven by political election cycles instead of "looking out for the guy and the woman who are paying rent ... having trouble paying their mortgage."
The overall NASA budget number is a 5.3% increase for the space agency. But the budget also requires NASA to rely on expensive Space Launch System (SLS) rockets, costing more than an estimated $2 billion per launch, to build a planned orbiting "Gateway" way station in lunar orbit. Commercial rockets described in earlier plans are much cheaper.
Even if the 2024 landing doesn't come to pass, NASA will be building the infrastructure to support moon landings and other deep space missions, Logsdon said. The space agency may turn to raiding funding from planned robotic precursor landings on the moon, the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, to steer money toward building an astronaut moon lander in the meantime.
"The space agency is trying very hard to follow the direction the vice president gave them," said Logsdon. "The only real problem is the arbitrariness of the 2024 date."
The post was updated to reflect that the budget bill has passed through the House of Representatives and is awaiting passage in the Senate.