Why Does America Want To Go Back To The Moon?

©NASA

Artemis

After months of being shy about how much it will cost to send Americans back to the lunar surface by 2024, NASA Administrator Bridenstine has finally started to get specific.

Upon hearing the numbers no one is really experiencing sticker shock. We all knew it would be a large number range that is beyond anything NASA could be expected to get. But Bridenstine is undeterred and is marching forth trying to make this whole thing work.

The cost numbers appeared in a CNN article yesterday: "NASA has touted its bold plan to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024 for months. Now we're starting to get an idea of how much it will cost. The space agency will need an estimated $20 billion to $30 billion over the next five years for its moon project, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told CNN Business on Thursday. That would mean adding another $4 billion to $6 billion per year, on average, to the agency's budget, which is already expected to be about $20 billion annually. Bridenstine's remarks are the first time that NASA has shared a total cost estimate for its moon program, which is called Artemis (after the Greek goddess of the moon) and could send people to the lunar surface for the first time in half a century. NASA wants that mission to include two astronauts: A man and the first-ever woman to walk on the moon."

Let's take the high end of the cost range = $30 billion. NASA has asked for $1.6 billion as a supplement to its FY 2020 Budget. So lets round out the remainder to $28 billion. In order for the whole Artemis Moon 2024 thing to happen that additional money needs to appear - dependably on time - over the course of FY 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and likely 2025. Let's ignore ramp ups and other things associated with typical programs and divide this amount by 5. You get an additional $5.6 billion every year. Or, lets be charitable and assume that they hit the lower number i.e. $20 billion. After deducting the current $1.6 billion request that leaves roughly $18 billion in additional funding or $3.6 billion in additional funding per year. So NASA needs somewhere between $3.6 and $5.6 billion a year for 5 fiscal years in order to meet the vice president's goal of landing Americans on the Moon by the end of 2024.

Over the past several years NASA watched the lifetime of ISS extended again and again. Now the target seems to be in the 2028-2030 range. NASA had hoped to totally hand over LEO operations to the private sector so that they could pivot several billion a year into the Moon program - and that was the program aimed at a 2028 landing. Now that goal post has been moved up by 4 years. This ISS hand off is not going to happen. None of the business ideas presented to NASA recently work unless NASA is still paying the lion's share of the bills. So NASA is going to be funding ISS operations for the next decade.

Add in chronic SLS delays and cost increases, problems with JWST, and pressure to increase funding in its various science portfolios and NASA is already totally over subscribed and under equipped fiscally to achieve all that is on its plate. Using commercial alternatives is smart and will decrease costs but NASA will still be billions of dollar short - at the onset - as it embarks on the Moon 2024 effort. The only way to possibly meet the Moon 2024 deadline is to find throw out the program of record and try something much more spartan. But we all know that SLS and Orion are not going to be cancelled. Full stop.

Regardless of how NASA does this much more money is going to be needed. And that money will have to be fought for. The Administration is going to have to champion these costs increases for the remainder of this term and the entirety of a hypothetical second term. And they they will have to do so while pursuing cuts to other parts of the government - as they have claimed that they will be doing. Congress is not likely to go along with this lopsided support of NASA while other science and technology efforts are cut.

If a new Administration takes over in early 2021 then one has to wonder if Artemis and the 2024 deadline will survive. High visibility, pet projects touted by prior Administrations rarely survive intact when the new folks show up.

So - its all gloomy and impossible and foolish to even attempt this Moon 2024 thing, right? No. Not at all. We have unfinished business on the Moon - and if we do not go back, other nations will. The only way that Artemis can succeed in meeting a 2024 deadline is if it is conducted by NASA using the smartest approach available and if NASA is willing to walk away from expensive mistakes, eat the costs, and accept the criticisms that go with admitting failure.

Moreover, to ensure that the Artemis program is not guaranteed to drop dead in 2021, NASA needs to equip it with a simple, internally - and externally consistent reason for being. Even if this Administration gets a second term, Bridenstine is going to need Democratic buy-in to get the $1.6 billion. He is going to need it for another 5 years to get all of the money. And if the White House changes hands, he will need that buy-in even more.

But we do have a solution. A few months ago Vice President Pence said "But know this: The President has directed NASA and Administrator Jim Bridenstine to accomplish this goal by any means necessary. In order to succeed, as the Administrator will discuss today, we must focus on the mission over the means. You must consider every available option and platform to meet our goals, including industry, government, and the entire American space enterprise."

NASA has only danced around the whole "by any means necessary" option. Now that the immense monetary needs are coming into focus it is obvious that NASA needs to revisit the means whereby this Moon project is accomplished. The current assumptions under which it is proceeding simply will not work. The money will not be there.

If Jim Bridenstine can craft the proverbial "elevator speech" that gets everyone, everywhere on board with Artemis - whether it is in the Halls of Congress or in a Walmart parking lot in 'Flyover Country' - then there will be no stopping NASA. Right now, PR slogans aside, the only clear reason we have is a directive from the White House with a delivery date that is equal to the length of a second term.

Why isn't all of America buzzing about going back to the Moon? If NASA and Jim Bridenstine can answer that question then they will be well along the path of understanding how to find that elusive "Why" that Artemis is currently lacking.

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