It started with a soaring speech at the National Space Council by Vice President Pence that laid out an ambitious if improbable goal: NASA astronauts would return to the surface of the moon and do it by 2024. Pence’s declaration in 2019 that NASA would accelerate its schedule by four years made big headlines and sent shock waves through NASA and the space industry as he pledged that the agency would meet the mandate “by any means necessary.”
Now, as the Trump administration departs in defeat, it is clear that the 2024 deadline will not be met, and was likely never an achievable goal, despite having the backing of the White House and a massive lobbying effort by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
To meet the White House’s mandate, which moved up the moon landing from 2028, Bridenstine had said that the agency would need $3.3 billion in next year’s budget to build the first spacecraft capable of landing astronauts on the moon since the Apollo era of the 1960s. With Pence’s backing, he crisscrossed the country and the halls of Congress, urging lawmakers to support the agency’s Artemis mission, which, as he pledged in his campaign-like stump speech, would put the “next man and first woman on the moon.”
Congress came through — but with $850 million, well short of the full request. And so now, the 2024 goal will not be met.
“In order to make the 2024 goal, everything in the sequence leading up to it had to go right,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “And in programs like this, that doesn’t usually happen.”
The 2024 deadline has “been dead for a while, I’m not sure it was ever alive,” he said. “It was what we call in the trade an aspirational goal.” Still, he said the effort has galvanized an agency that has not returned to the lunar surface since the last Apollo mission in 1972 and has only recently resumed flying astronauts from American soil to Earth orbit.
“It energized NASA and its contractors to put more intensity into what they were doing,” Logsdon said.
Bridenstine, whose leadership inspired an online fan club, was praised for his work to build bipartisan support for Artemis. And unlike other unfulfilled promises of the Trump administration — a border wall that didn’t get fully built or the failure to replace the Affordable Care Act with a viable alternative — the effort to return astronauts to the moon is likely to continue under the Biden administration, Republicans and Democrats say, though on a different timeline.
Amid a tumultuous election, rioting at the Capitol and a deadly pandemic, Biden has said nothing about his plans for the space program. The transition team has not yet announced who it would nominate for administrator, though Democrats have said it is likely to be the first woman to ever occupy the position. Under Biden, the agency will focus more on Earth science, party officials said, and note that its party platform says, “We support NASA’s work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond the Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system.”
In an interview, Bridenstine, who will step down from NASA on Jan. 20, would not declare the 2024 deadline dead quite yet, though he did say that given the shortfall in funding, NASA “is going to have to go back to the drawing board.”
Still, the Artemis program “is on solid footing. It is absolutely true that we didn’t get every dollar we requested, and that will make us reevaluate what the plan ultimately looks like,” he said. “But the fact that in the midst of a very challenging year, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate said we want to fund a human landing system at $850 million — that’s a solid victory.”
In addition to lobbying lawmakers, Bridenstine has successfully courted several international partners in the effort, such as Japan, Australia and Canada, which are committing resources and signing a document known as the Artemis Accords that governs behavior on and around the moon. A broad international coalition, such as the one that governs the International Space Station, will provide continuity from one administration to the next, said Wayne Hale, a former NASA flight director, who now chairs an advisory committee.
“This administration has very smartly instituted the Artemis Accords, which binds us with other nations,” he said. “And that I think is going to continue to motivate the administration that follows to carry on that project.”
NASA has also highlighted the astronauts who would fly on the Artemis missions — giving a face to the program and a hint of who the first woman to walk on the moon might be. But there are still numerous challenges that the Biden administration will inherit.
The Space Launch System, NASA’s massive rocket that would fly astronauts to the moon, has never flown. And while it has in recent months made significant progress, it has over the years suffered many setbacks and delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns. If all goes well at a major test of its engines Saturday, the rocket’s first flight, known as Artemis I, is expected to come late this year, propelling the Orion spacecraft, without any astronauts on board, in a mission around the moon. If the test is successful, NASA would then work to put a crew of astronauts in orbit around the moon for Artemis II, before the Artemis III landing.
Given that the Space Launch System is a massive, complex rocket, the most powerful ever built, and has never flown before, the current schedule may be very optimistic.
“NASA announces, without any kind of doubt, that Artemis I, II and III are going to go off without a hitch. If you look at SLS, it is a very complicated rocket,” said Homer Hickam, the author and a member of the National Space Council’s advisory committee. “The odds are it’s not going to work perfectly on the first launch. And if it doesn’t work perfectly, are you really going to put a crew on the second time?”
NASA has already awarded nearly $1 billion in contracts to three companies for the initial development of spacecraft capable of landing astronauts on the lunar surface. A team led by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper won $579 million, the biggest amount. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Dynetics, which teamed with Sierra Nevada Corp., was awarded $253 million, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX got $135 million.
Those contracts run out in February, and the second phase, in which NASA is expected to eliminate at least one of the bidders and continue with the others, would come shortly afterward. But some fear that will be delayed, as Democrats take office and assess NASA’s programs.
Bridenstine said that delays could hinder the momentum the program has and that he hoped that would not happen.
“I don’t think that would be in the interest of the agency or the program,” he said. “I haven’t heard that’s what they’re planning to do. But the goal is to go fast. That’s how you create a program that’s successful.”
Even if the contracts aren’t delayed, he said the agency is going to have to reassess the 2024 timeline: “I think it’s important to give the team time to assess what the future might look like.”