NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is currently the public face of the agency’s newly named lunar initiative, Artemis, which aims to put the first woman on the surface of the Moon by 2024. On Monday, he revealed that NASA wants an extra $1.6 billion for next year to accelerate the project, but questions still remain about the ultimate cost of the program and the nitty-gritty details on how NASA astronauts will actually get to the lunar surface.
NASA already has an overall outline for how this initiative will take shape, but now Bridenstine has the daunting task of securing funds to jump-start the ambitious project. The agency plans to build a space station called the Gateway in orbit around the Moon, which will serve as an outpost for astronauts. NASA has also been developing a rocket called the SLS and a crew capsule called Orion, which, together, will take astronauts to this new lunar station. From there, humans will ride in a lander from the Gateway to the lunar surface.
All of those moving pieces mean that a lot of new hardware needs to be developed and tested over the next five years, and some in-space assembly is definitely required. This week, The Verge spoke with Bridenstine by phone and email to learn more about the new Artemis program and what it’s going to take to convince Congress to add another $1.6 billion to NASA’s coffers.
This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity.
One thing a lot of people noticed is that the request is kind of low. It’s definitely not $8 billion like some people thought, and it’s also low when you compare it to the increases that Apollo got back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. What do you say to those who think it’s not high enough?
We have to remember that we already have SLS, Orion, and the European Service Module well underway. Those are three of the biggest components to getting humans to the Moon, and we’re on the brink of being ready with those programs. When we talk about what we need, we’ve got to get the Gateway developed, and we need to get the landing systems developed.
That’s really what we’re focused on now. If you look at a normal development project, it follows a bell curve. So, as you identified correctly, the first year is pretty low. We’re turning to commercial industry to provide us with their thoughts on how to go from the Gateway down to the surface of the Moon. We are in essence buying a service. Commercial industry is going to provide a service for American astronauts to go from the Gateway down to the surface of the Moon.
We’re looking for our industry partners to make their own investments into the lander. We expect them to invest in it with a purpose of having customers that are not NASA. They could have customers that would be international. They could have customers that would be commercial industry customers. So we’re looking for our partners to invest their own money.
What the $1 billion gets us is a strong start out of the gate to begin the development with money for key milestones. And then we will be looking for additional resources in 2021. Like I said, it follows a bell curve. So 2021 will be a little bit more, 2022 will be more than that, and then it’ll start coming back down.
Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Kendra Horn (D-OK) have already expressed their early sentiments about this, and they’ve both talked about their concern over the fact that there’s no full budget for the years ahead. So why not reveal the full five-year budget now?
Well, we’re doing this in a way that’s never been done before. Again, we are asking industry to invest in it, and we want to look at what their ideas are before we make bigger decisions. There are proposals that only require two elements to get from the Gateway down to the surface of the Moon and then back to the Gateway: a descent module and an ascent module. There are other ideas that utilize three elements that would include a transfer vehicle.
So there’s different concepts, different ideas out there. Different companies are able to invest their own money at different levels. And so, because of how we’re moving forward, it’s difficult for us to be able to assess what all the options are right now. But we are anxiously anticipating that we’re going to get a lot of great ideas, and we will be able to make assessments as to what the 2021 budget will look like based on the ideas that come in.
On Monday, you said it was tough to get people on the phone about the new budget amendment. Have you been able to talk to more lawmakers since the release, and do you have more details on their reactions?
Absolutely. I testified in the Senate just a few days ago, and it was very positive. People are excited about the Moon. Last night, Senator [Jerry] Moran, who is the chairman of the CJS Appropriations Committee in the Senate — that’s the key committee that funds NASA — sent out a tweet that very specifically said:
“Our greatest achievements remain ahead of us. And as the chief appropriator for NASA, I will work with the President of the United States, the Vice President and Jim Bridenstine, to make certain NASA has the resources to land the first woman on the Moon and build lasting infrastructure to support missions to Mars and beyond.”
I was not anticipating that. I was excited to see it, and I immediately retweeted it.
Our greatest achievements remain ahead of us. And as the chief appropriator for @NASA, I will work w/ @POTUS, @VP & @JimBridenstine to make certain NASA has the resources to land the first woman on the Moon and build lasting infrastructure to support missions to Mars and beyond. https://t.co/ZYvsgoTiR1
— Senator Jerry Moran (@JerryMoran) May 15, 2019
And I will say, talking to Senators on the other side of the aisle, I think there’s broad agreement that this is something that is very exciting that people are interested in. I’ve had a number of Senators and House members ask me specifically: Is this enough? Do you have everything you need on this? And for the year 2020, the answer is yes. So the concern I think from a lot of the folks on the other side of the aisle is, is this everything you need?
I think there’s good support here on both sides of the aisle.
Also on Monday, you mentioned you did not know where the money was coming from within the federal budget, but it’s now been revealed to be from the Pell Grant surplus like we suspected. Do you have any concerns about this in terms of making it harder to sell the mission to Congress?
The way I look at it is: this is now part of the overall budget request. And when you look at the entirety of the budget request, there are accounts that go up and there are accounts that go down. My only direction was to tell them what we thought it would take to get a good start in the year 2020 for a 2024 Moon landing.
We gave them those numbers. They delivered those numbers. And what accounts go up and what accounts go down is above my pay grade and outside of my control. I will certainly say that NASA has what it needs, and it’s up to the House and the Senate how they want to fund it. And whatever they choose to do, we will follow the law.
You mentioned that this budget doesn’t draw from within NASA, but there is language within the budget amendment that would give the administrator authority to do so. I’d love some clarity on that.
The President’s budget amendment does not rely on any offsets within existing NASA programs to enable US astronauts to return to the Moon by 2024, and I have stated publicly that I have no intent of redirecting funding from other NASA programs, including science, in support of the human lunar return effort. The intent of the proposed transfer language is to provide the NASA administrator maximum flexibility, within the funds allocated, in support of establishing a US strategic presence on the Moon in the most effective and efficient way possible. The language is not intended to enable transfer of other funds within the agency to the lunar effort.
NASA will work with the committees on appropriation to ensure that this transfer authority is clearly limited to overall funding for the lunar effort.
Let’s talk about the actual mission. One thing Rep. Horn told me was that she wants more details about the plan. We know the basics: SLS will take Orion to the Gateway, and from there, people will travel in a lander to the Moon. But do you have a more detailed road map of all the launches and tests that need to be done between now and then, or is that still in the works?
Certainly, you’ve identified a number of the pieces, and all of those pieces need to be tested. As far as the launches go, we have to get the first elements of the Gateway launched: the Power and Propulsion Element and what we call the Utilization Module, which is a very small habitat. Each one of those pieces will be launched commercially, so there’s two launches.
And then we need to aggregate the lander at the Gateway. And that lander could either have two or three pieces. And we will be looking at proposals from industry on that to make assessments as to what’s the best approach. We are certainly working through a more detailed analysis.
Do you have an understanding of the amount of launches or missions you’re going to need that include launching the Gateway elements, including launching test flights for Orion, landers, etc.?
We have SLS, which is going to launch EM-1. We’re now going to call it Artemis 1. But Artemis 1 is going to be an uncrewed launch around the Moon. Artemis 2 is going to be a crewed launch around the Moon. Artemis 3 is going to carry the next humans that land on the Moon. Each one of those launches is an SLS rocket with an Orion crew capsule and a European Service Module.
Now, for Artemis 3 that carries our crew to the Gateway, we need to have the crew have access to a lander. So, that means that at Gateway we’re going to have the Power and Propulsion Element, which will be launched commercially, the Utilization Module, which will be launched commercially, and then we’ll have a lander there. And there’s either two or three elements to the lander depending on what industry — how they want to solve the challenge of getting from the Gateway down to the surface of the Moon. And if there’s two elements, there will be two commercial launches. If there’s three elements, there will probably be three commercial launches.
Just based on my quick math, it sounds like about seven to eight launches is what you’re targeting.
Gateway is two elements, that’s two launches. You have a lander — we’ll say that there’s three launches for the lander, so there’s five. And in fact, we want to have two unique solutions for the lander, so there’s six, seven, and eight. And then you’ve got three SLS launches, so that’s nine, 10, and 11. So, up to 11 launches.
Now a lot of this relies on architecture that’s been in development for about a decade, such as SLS and Orion, and like you said, the programs have suffered from setbacks and delays. Meanwhile, Vice President Pence has talked about urgency and that if our current contractors can’t cut it, we’ll get new contractors. What happens if these programs are delayed again, and is more money enough to keep them on schedule?
I think we have what we need for now. The most probable path to enabling the next man and the first woman on the surface of the Moon in 2024 is to move forward as quickly as possible with SLS and Orion. And so we think that this is achievable. We have to make sure that there are no errors and no setbacks.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on recent pitches that have been made publicly for human-rated lunar landers. Lockheed made a pitch in April, and then I’m sure you saw Jeff Bezos unveiled Blue Moon last week. What do you think of those proposals and could they be incorporated into the NASA plan?
We are very excited about them. We want to have two very dissimilar landing capabilities, so that if one of them has a setback, the other one can go forward. And there are others beyond the two that you just mentioned that are underway. Each one of these represents an opportunity for NASA to get unique perspectives from some very capable service providers, and we look forward to assessing and analyzing what they’re planning to do, and how much they believe it’s going to cost, and how much they’re willing to invest in the program.
Obviously the deadline is very close. Have you started thinking about a training plan for astronauts and what that would entail?
Absolutely. The training plan is underway. We have a very qualified and diverse astronaut corps with lots of experience on the International Space Station. We have not selected the cadre that will be that first crew that goes in 2022 around the Moon and then in 2024 to the Gateway and then onto the surface. We have not selected what that cadre looks like, but we are very confident we have the right people. And we look forward to getting them ready.
There’s been a lot of talk about spacesuits and how they may not be ready. You have emphasized that they will be, but I’d love some more details about them. I know there’s some money already in this year’s request, but do you plan on giving out new contracts soon or using existing contracts?
Here’s the thing: We know what it takes to build a space suit. It’s a priority for us. It’s not an easy thing to achieve. But certainly, we’re not going to go to the Moon without spacesuits so we’re working through that right now.
Artemis is all about putting women on the Moon. Will she be the one to make the first step on the Moon?
The direction that we have right now is that the next man and the first woman will be Americans, and that we will land on the south pole of the Moon in 2024. Beyond that we’ve not made any specific decisions, but I will tell you it’s something that we’re all interested in, and I think there’s a lot of young ladies all across the country, and in fact all around the world, that are wondering who that first woman is going to be.
Given everything we’ve talked about, do you have one big concern about making this plan a reality? What are the biggest challenges for you guys and how do you plan to overcome those hurdles?
You have identified the biggest risk, which is political. And that’s why we’re not on the Moon right now. It’s, in fact, why we’re not on Mars right now. We go back to 1972, it was the last time we had a person on the surface of the Moon. And there have been many efforts since 1972 to return to the Moon, and they have all failed. And they have not failed because of NASA; they have not failed because of the technological capabilities of this agency. They have failed because of the whimsical budgets that come from politicians.
So that’s one of the reasons it’s so important to accelerate this program. As the program goes longer and longer, what happens is priorities change, budgets change, administrations change, and each one of these things result in additional political risk.
We’ve been through this before. If we want to have success we have to retire the political risk, which means we need to accelerate the plan to get to the Moon, and we need strong bipartisan consensus that this is the right thing to do for our country. I think we’re there. I think there’s a lot of people that understand that this is a unique opportunity that we need to seize upon.