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Foust Forward | Sell ​​a hazy vision to return to the moon



"Foust Forward" appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column appeared in the May 6, 2019 issue.

After just over a year in office, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has demonstrated his willingness to speak to the agency in front of various listeners. For example, at the end of April, he spoke with students at an event that included a video link with the International Space Station, with scientists at a planetary defense conference and various fans, some in costumes, at a science-fiction convention.

His hardest audience, however, is on Capitol Hill. It has been almost six weeks since Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech at a National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, accused NASA of having landed on the moon by 2024. have been looking for answers to two questions: how will NASA do it and how much?

The answer to the first question takes shape. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's NASA Human Exploration and Operations Administrator, outlined an approach on April 30 at a meeting of two national academy committees. This concept involves the accelerated development of a lunar module as well as a "minimal" lunar gateway, consisting only of a power and propulsion module and a docking node.

This plan, Gerstenmaier said, would allow astronauts to land on the Moon on Exploration Mission 3, the third SLS / Orion flight, and transport only the second, astronaut. However, they would not spend much time on the moon or do much work there. "I'd say it will be pretty spartan for the first landing in 2024," he warned.

Even the gateway in this minimal form could not survive. "It may not be the first critical way to reach the first landing in 2024," said Ryan Whitley, director of civil space policy at the National Space Council, at the same National Academies meeting earlier in the day. He later went back to say that a minimal gateway was "part of the 2024 solution for now," but suggested that the debate not be ended.

As NASA shares details about how to get there, it's silent about how much it will cost. One day after Gerstenmaier's speech, Bridenstine appeared before the Senate's appropriators on the budget agency's budget inquiry for 2020. However, this does not include any changes brought about by the 2024 moon landing. "We are currently unable to say what this budget number is," he said in his opening speech.

At the hearing, it turned out that the patience of senators subsided. "Someone in the administration will demand extra dollars," said Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Who chairs the Subcommittee, which finances NASA. "Do we know what these extra dollars will be?"

All Bridenstine would say that reports that NASA would seek an additional $ 8 billion a year for five years were wrong. "It's not nearly that much," he said, but declined to be more specific as the White House undermined a "single administrative position".

Senators who were timely and frustrated by pending votes Lack of detail prompted Bridenstine to agree to a future meeting with them once the revised budget proposal was published. In the coming weeks there will be a similar audience with the Congress, including a hearing of the Subcommittee on Space of the House on 8 May.

Bridenstine has evoked much political favor in Congress since his term as an administrator. Even Democrats who opposed his nomination have expressed their appreciation for the leadership of the agency. However, this will be put to the test once the revised budget reaches the top and members debate whether landing on the Moon in 2024 is worthwhile.

"I have never had a more political job than the one I am currently in office," said Bridenstine, who was elected to the House of Representatives for three terms in another speech last month, this time at an astrophysics workshop. This job could soon become much more political.


  jeff_foust_4c

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space and related topics for SpaceNews. His "Foust Forward" column is displayed in every issue of the journal.


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