NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the space agency expects a decision from the US Government Accountability Office on a lunar lander protest by August 4. This would seem to set a firm timeline after which NASA can move forward with its Artemis program.
Nelson’s comments came in response to members of the US House Science, Space, and Technology Committee asking for specifics on Artemis, which NASA intends to use to return humans to the Moon and eventually go on to Mars.
“I will have a plan to announce,” Nelson said, referring to Artemis specifics and the protest timeline.
Later, US Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) asked whether this plan would include a “resource loaded” schedule and budget for the Artemis program, and Nelson responded, “Yes sir.”
This would represent a significant step forward for Artemis, as resource loading is a formal process by which a schedule integrates cost, schedule, and risk. It requires communication between the agency’s leadership, program managers, and cost estimators and ultimately allows for more informed decision-making. It would signal to Congress that the Artemis program has concrete plans and goals rather than existing only as a PowerPoint presentation.
In mid-April, NASA selected SpaceX to conduct a “demonstration” mission of its Starship vehicle as a Human Landing System on the Moon. This crewed flight would occur no earlier than 2024.
NASA based its decision, in part, on cost. “We looked at what’s the best value to the government,” Kathy Lueders, chief of the human exploration program for NASA, said at the time.
The decision was swiftly followed by protests from the two other bidders for the Human Landing System contract, a “National Team” led by Blue Origin and another team led by Dynetics. “NASA has executed a flawed acquisition for the Human Landing System program and moved the goalposts at the last minute,” Blue Origin said in a statement that accompanied its sealed protest.
Nelson was confirmed as NASA administrator after the contract award was announced and after the protests were filed. Nelson has subsequently said he supported NASA’s contract award to SpaceX but that he also will abide by US GAO decision on the protest.
One of the big questions before Congress is whether to fully fund the Human Landing System, the key remaining technology needed to return humans to the Moon. NASA asked for $3.3 billion in fiscal year 2021 to start development of two landers. Congress provided just $850 million for this year’s budget.
As a result, NASA said it only had enough funds for one lander and chose what it deemed the lowest-cost, most technically ready option: SpaceX’s Starship vehicle. Nelson said he very much would like to have competition in the lander program, but, he said, “That will depend on you all.” In other words, if Congress appropriates substantially more funding for a lunar lander program for the 2022 budget, then NASA will be able to support development of two lunar landers.
Several members of Congress tried to object to this idea. Brian Babin (R-Texas) noted that the Biden administration had only asked for $1.2 billion in the recent 2022 President’s Budget Request for a Human Landing System. This is only about one-third of the amount the White House requested in the 2021 budget. “Once you dig into the details, some concerning themes emerge,” Babin said of the fiscal year 2022 NASA budget request, suggesting that it was really the White House that was not committed to Artemis.
But Nelson was having none of this. “The Congress appropriated $850 million,” Nelson told Babin. “And so you can only get so many pounds of potatoes out of a five-pound sack. If you all are generous… then we’re going to try to rev it up.”
So until NASA receives more money—above and beyond the $1.2 billion budget request for the coming fiscal year—it will have to press ahead with its current plan.
Commercial space safety
Another theme during the hearing was questions about whether private companies, such as SpaceX, could develop vehicles safe enough for human spaceflight. Nelson noted that SpaceX is already doing this with its Crew Dragon vehicle in low Earth orbit. Even if NASA is buying spaceflight as a service rather than owning the systems outright, the agency still has adequate supervision of safety, he said.
But could private companies be counted on to deliver this service beyond low Earth orbit? This is what Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) wanted to know. He cited the Apollo program (and NASA’s development of the Apollo rockets and spacecraft) as a model Artemis should emulate.
Nelson gently pushed back on this as well. “In the Apollo program, we got to the Moon with American corporations,” Nelson said. “They did all the work. NASA supervised it. NASA had a reason to supervise it, because NASA’s responsibility is to make sure it is safe. We’re just continuing that in a different way.”
Nelson also reiterated that NASA is committed to developing the Human Landing System with fixed-price contracts, which should allow for shorter timelines and lower costs.