NASA Officials Cagey About Details of 2024 Moon Landing

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Trump administration may have issued a directive ordering American astronauts back to the moon in five years, but lawmakers bristled Wednesday as NASA officials offered few concrete details about the lunar landing plan or the project’s prospective budget.

The moon is seen during a complete lunar eclipse over Jakarta, Indonesia, on Aug. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Just two weeks ago, Vice President Mike Pence, who also chairs the National Space Council, announced that the U.S. was accelerating its deadline to reach the moon from 2028 to 2024. However, such a goal may be overly ambitious.

On Wednesday, senior NASA officials expressed optimism about the prospect of returning to the moon to members of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, saying the moon will one day become a launch pad for deep space and Mars exploration.

But those big dreams are tethered by logistical challenges on Earth, NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier explained.

For one, the designs for lunar suits astronauts will need to visit the moon’s South Pole are not yet completed. Only designs for portions of the suit are ready. Designing suits for Mars exploration alone is unlikely to occur until well after the next lunar mission is launched, Gerstenmaier said.

Details about the lunar voyage itself are also incomplete and NASA has yet to release a budget to the committee for the accelerated landing plans.

The blueprint was due over a year ago, Chairwoman Kendra Horn, D-Okla., said Wednesday.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2017 established visiting Mars as a long-term goal, but that legislation also stipulated NASA render a “human exploration roadmap” to Congress.

Hearing after hearing, including a budget hearing attended by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in March, has featured testimony heavy on the grand plans the agency has for lunar and deep space exploration.

But according to the chairwoman, specifics involving the technology requirements to get back to the moon and what the cost to taxpayers will be has been largely glossed over.

Representative Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, appeared at Wednesday’s hearing just moments after attending a 2020 budget hearing for the National Science Foundation, an organization which provides critical research to a number of industries, disciplines and agencies like NASA.

“The president’s request [for the NSF budget] would cut it in half by a billion dollars,” Johnson said. “A week ago, we had a hearing on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget request and the news was similar: the president’s request would cut NOAA’s budget by a billion dollars.”

And three weeks before that, the Trump administration also requested a 30% cut, or roughly $300 million, to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, yet another organization that provides agencies like NASA with the research and data needed to make ambitious exploration dreams a reality.

Yet another critical agency, the Department of Energy, also saw a cut to its research programs by $4.5 billion last month.

If Congress is meant to increase NASA’s budget simply to meet the Trump administration’s accelerated lunar deadline, the costs must be weighed appropriately, Johnson said before emphatically noting that she would not “cannibalize” NASA’s overall research to speed up the program.

Mark Sirangelo, special assistant to the NASA administrator, told lawmakers the Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing the final budget estimates for the lunar program.

Until that office has completed its review, not even a preliminary estimate could be shared with the committee, Sirangelo said.

Ranking member Brian Babin, R-Texas, acknowledged Wednesday’s hearing may be premature since the lunar schedule is so ambitious.

“We must also be mindful of artificial schedule pressure,” Babin said. “The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has noted in several reports that it’s important to set challenging but achievable schedules and not allow undue schedule pressure to lead to decisions that adversely impact safety and mission assurance.”

Wednesday marked the first official hearing the committee has held on the lunar landing plan. Others will follow but likely not until NASA has finalized its plan.

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