NASA will ask Congress for an extra $1.6 billion to begin preparations to land the first woman on the moon by 2024, the space agency said late Monday.
President Donald Trump tweeted the call for extra cash for the $21 billion space agency ahead of NASA's announcement. The administration will add the new figures to its earlier request for NASA's 2020 budget.
"This gets us out of the gate with a strong start," Jim Bridenstine, administrator of NASA, said in a news briefing on the proposal. "All of us at NASA should be excited."
The 2024 two-person landing would include the first woman astronaut to walk on the moon, he added, and be called the Artemis missions. NASA last landed astronauts on the moon in 1972's Apollo 17 mission. In Greek mythology, the goddess Artemis was the sister of Apollo; to honor the first women landing on the moon, Bridenstine said, the moon landings would be named after that figure.
"That is a very small down payment for what they are proposing to do," space historian Roger Launius, author of Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race, told BuzzFeed News. Some news reports suggested that NASA estimates it would need as much as an additional $8 billion a year over the next five years to reach the moon.
In response to a question from BuzzFeed News, Bridenstine downplayed that number, saying it was "well above" agency cost estimates.
Vice President Mike Pence called for the moon landing by 2024 in a March speech in Huntsville, Alabama, home of NASA's jumbo Space Launch System rocket, itself years behind schedule and billions of dollars more expensive than original estimates.
The proposal would add money to speed up the first launch of the SLS to 2020. It would also slim down an orbiting "Gateway" lab planned for the moon by $321 million, shifting the money to developing a moon lander. As part of the plan, NASA would establish a "permanent presence" on the moon by 2028, a habitable base located near the lunar south pole, where water ice is thought to reside in craters.
"I’m worried that without proper Congressional buy-in, this budget amendment is at best, a massive waste of time, and at worst, pushing risky political timelines that could set NASA back for years," space policy expert Phil Larson of the University of Colorado, Boulder, told BuzzFeed News by email.
"I’m skeptical that any Congress (R or D controlled) will add billions of taxpayer dollars for a moon program," he added. The Trump Administration intends to ask for surplus Pell Grant funds, intended to fund college education, to supply the $1.6 billion in new funding, according to the Associated Press.
Rep. José Serrano, a Democrat from New York and chair of the appropriations subcommittee that sets NASA's budget, expressed great reluctance to fund a moon shot driven by a "political deadline" at a recent hearing.