It’s been a week of ups and downs for NASA’s Moon landing program, as the agency has awarded its first contract for its Lunar Gateway while facing both financial and personnel setbacks.
The Artemis program, as it’s now called, seeks to return American men and women to the Moon by 2024. Vice President Mike Pence declared in March that NASA must meet this deadline by any means necessary. NASA is still in the planning stages, and is finding some difficulty in securing the funding for the ambitious mission.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced on Thursday that NASA would award a $375 million contract to satellite company Maxar Technologies to develop the power, propulsion, and communications capabilities for the Lunar Gateway program. They’re targeting a 2022 launch date. The power and propulsion element is an electric propulsion spacecraft and is the foundation of the Gateway.
The Gateway would serve as a stopover point and communications relay, giving astronomers access to the whole Moon. Astronauts would travel to this component of the Gateway and then to the Moon’s surface, then back to the Gateway and home, reports the Verge.
“This system requires much less propellant than traditional chemical systems, which will allow the Gateway to move more mass around the Moon, like a human landing system and large modules for living and working in orbit,” Mike Barrett, power and propulsion element project manager at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said in a release from the space agency.
NASA has yet to select a private company to build the rocket or lander.
Meanwhile, securing funding for the very expensive Artemis program has proven difficult—and funding is a major roadblock for keeping the mission on Pence’s tight schedule. Gizmodo reported last week that President Trump requested an extra $1.6 billion for the Moon mission in his budget proposal. The additional funds would have come from decreasing a prior amount requested for the Lunar Gateway as well as from surplus money in the Federal Pell Grant Program, which is designed to provide money for low-income college students.
But Congress hasn’t offered enthusiastic support for the mission; the House Appropriations Committee did not include the President’s request in its NASA spending plan, Quartz reports, and many were opposed to redirecting Pell Grants. Congress is still opting to fund NASA more than in previous years, but with money going to programs other than the Artemis program, since they simply don’t know how much that program will cost yet. Bridenstine said he would not know the true cost until the 2021 budget request, the New York Times reports.
You might wonder what’s wrong with redirecting the Pell Grant “surplus.” The present surplus comes from the fact that Congress must predict how many students will use the fund a year or two out. Recently, fewer students have taken advantage of the program, perhaps because of a better economy, lower college enrollment, or tighter restrictions on who can draw from it. The cuts wouldn’t impact today’s students, but a recession would inevitably require more students to draw from the fund once again.
Expanding eligibility could be another use of the surplus, rather than redirecting it to NASA. After all, college costs are rising faster than the grants are—Pell Grants once covered the majority of public university costs, but now cover less than a third, Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy at the National College Access Network, told Gizmodo.
Besides the funding battle, NASA had another lunar setback this week. Today, Reuters reported that an executive who was meant to lead the astronaut selection effort has quit, just six weeks into the job.
So, is the Moon journey still possible? It’s hard to say. Experts told Space.com that sending humans back to the Moon by 2024 is feasible but depends more on political teamwork than technology. NASA is making moves, but it will take a more coordinated effort on such a tight deadline.