The question now is: Can it maintain its mojo?
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is hoping to capitalize on the moment, seeking to leverage the recent triumphs and the run of good news they’ve generated into support for NASA’s expansive new budget requests. He made that clear at an event in Houston Sunday evening where he welcomed NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley home and said their exploits were proof that NASA does great things. It could do more, if only Congress would agree, he said.
“What I’m asking our members of Congress to do is look at what we’ve done with what we have,” he said. “And if you fund us at our budget request level, we will be on the moon. . . . The next step is we’re going to the moon and then onto Mars. This is about momentum. It starts today, and it finishes when we put an American flag on Mars.”
In an interview Monday, he said the agency was only getting started, reeling off a series of major missions to come that he hopes will galvanize interest in space and congressional support. Next year, the space agency is planning to fly its Orion spacecraft on a trip around the moon without astronauts, as well as two robotic missions to deliver science experiments to the lunar surface. If all goes well, it would also launch the $9.8 billion James Webb telescope in 2021, and the first-ever mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids.
But the coronavirus pandemic could impact all of those schedules. And the funding for NASA’s flagship mission, the Artemis program that would return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, is mired in a political debate.
The White House has requested $25.2 billion for NASA next year, a significant increase that would help fund Artemis. NASA had originally planned to send astronauts there by 2028, but the White House directed the space agency to accelerate its plans, landing instead by 2024. To meet that ambitious deadline, NASA would need significantly more resources — an estimated $35 billion over the next several years.
“The budget request is big,” he said. “But if we’re gong to do big things, we need to have a budget that matches.” Or, as people in the space industry say, “no bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
Congress, however, is skeptical.
The House last week largely rebuffed the White House’s spending plan, passing a spending bill with only $22.6 billion for NASA, a far cry from the White House request. The Senate has yet to take up the measure.
Some members, particularly Democrats, have voiced skepticism for months.
“Rhetoric about American leadership in space and advancing the role of women in spaceflight is all well and good,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the chair of the House Science Committee, said last year. “But it is not a substitute for a well-planned, well-managed, well-funded and well-executed exploration program.”
Bridenstine has long said that politics have hampered the agency more than technical setbacks. And as a former member of Congress, he has been in campaign mode for months to get the funding from his former colleagues.
“We have proven that if you give us the resources, we can deliver,” he said Sunday.
But the hurdles the agency faces are not just budgetary or political. NASA has had troubling problems with some of its major programs that have sowed doubt about its ability to perform. The key is whether the SpaceX success will allow detractors to look past those problems.
For years, NASA has struggled with delays and cost overruns on its Space Launch System, a new rocket that Boeing is building as the lead contractor for NASA that would be the most powerful ever constructed. It’s the rocket that would eventually fly astronauts to the moon. The James Webb telescope has also been beset by cost overruns and delays.
But the SLS rocket has never flown, and NASA is only now, many years behind schedule, conducting the tests that would culminate later this year with “hot fire,” when engineers will ignite the rocket’s four RS-25 engines for up to eight minutes and generate 1.6 million pounds of thrust.
It’s NASA, however, that will ultimately own and operate the rocket, a vastly different model from the partnership it has with SpaceX to send astronauts to the space station. SpaceX owns and operates the hardware, not NASA, which hires SpaceX for rides to the station.
Boeing, the prime contractor for the SLS, is the other company hired to fly astronauts to the space station, and it has stumbled badly in that mission, botching a test flight last year. Now it will refly that uncrewed test later this year, and isn’t expected to be approved for a crewed test flight till next year. NASA has conceded it did a poor job of supervising Boeing’s software development, the key reason for Boeing’s failed test.
Bridenstine’s strategy in part has been to embrace the star power of the emerging commercial space industry, and the billionaires who are fueling the next chapter of space exploration. At Sunday’s ceremony, Bridenstine was joined by Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX.
Last year, as the company’s progress was delayed, Bridenstine took a swipe at it, writing on Twitter that “it’s time to deliver.” But on Sunday he praised Musk, saying “I want to tell you, Elon, you responded absolutely magnificently and you have, in fact, delivered.”
For his part, Musk echoed Bridenstine’s goals for space exploration. He called the successful mission to fly Hurley and Behnken to the space station and back “a new era in space flight, a new era in space exploration where we’re going to go to the moon. We’re going to have a base on the moon. We can send people to Mars and make life multi-planetary.”
In the meantime, SpaceX is charging ahead with its partnership with NASA. The space agency has already named the crew of SpaceX’s next mission, a quartet of astronauts in what would mark the first operational mission of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.
The crews have nearly completed their training.
“We’re ready,” NASA astronaut Victor Glover said Sunday. “We’re ready to go to the space station. . . . It’s just a great time to be at NASA.”