NASA is reviewing the Trump administration’s plan to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024 and will decide in the next few months whether the first three missions now scheduled for the Artemis program will need to be delayed.
“It’s probably going to take two to three months to work through all that and determine the feasibility of ," acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk told POLITICO in an interview.
At that point, the space agency will decide "if we need … a different schedule,” he added.
It has been widely anticipated that the 2024 goal, which was four years earlier than originally planned, would be impossible to meet given that a new rocket, capsule, lunar lander, and other components still need to be developed and fully tested.
But Jurczyk’s comments Tuesday mark the first public acknowledgment by the space agency that the aggressive timeline, announced by former Vice President Mike Pence in 2019, is in jeopardy.
A major obstacle is simply funding for a project that is estimated to ultimately cost $30 billion.
Congress appropriated more than $23 billion for NASA in the fiscal 2021 omnibus spending bill. That included about $850 million to begin buying a lunar lander, far short of the $3.3 billion NASA requested.
The NASA inspector general also issued a report in November that ranked landing astronauts on the moon by 2024 the top challenge facing the agency. And another IG report also released that month found that the Gateway, a small habitat orbiting the moon designed to facilitate lunar missions, is unlikely to be ready by 2024.
Jurczyk, who worked at NASA for three decades before being tapped to run the agency until President Joe Biden nominates a permanent administrator, said the agency is now awaiting feedback from the White House Office of Management and Budget on NASA’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal, which was crafted under the Trump administration.
That will provide an early indication of the new administration’s intentions for the space agency and help determine if the moon goal is even still possible.
NASA officials are also reviewing the proposals from space companies to build a landing system to bring humans to the lunar surface.
Jurczyk said NASA can then assess what funding level it would need to stick to the 2024 deadline or, if that is too ambitious, the earliest it could safely send astronauts to the moon.
Under the current plan, Artemis I, without a crew, is expected to launch in 2021, followed by Artemis II, which would fly astronauts past the moon in 2023. Artemis III, currently set for 2024, would land a crew on the moon.
The Trump administration sought to make the deadline a reality, despite many in the space community saying it was technically not possible and criticism from Democrats that it was a political ploy timed with the end of second Trump term if he was reelected.
As recently as a December, former NASA chief Jim Bridenstine was unwilling to back down from the 2024 deadline goal. But he also acknowledged that without proper funding the Artemis program would have to “go back to the drawing board.”
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