The Trump administration’s Moon-to-Mars program has already sidestepped the fate of many previous presidential space programs: cancellation under new leadership. Last month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced the Biden administration’s support for Artemis, NASA’s flagship lunar agenda.
It was a rare passing of the baton between two opposing administrations in virtually every other area. And it quelled some industry fears that Biden would completely shelve the moon launch plan. While still in its infancy, the Artemis program unleashed a wave of momentum in the industry, thanks in part to an energizing but wildly unrealistic target date of 2024 to plant boots on the Moon.
To get an idea of what’s next for Artemis and NASA, The edge spoke with Bhavya Lal, NASA’s acting chief of staff and currently Biden’s highest-ranking appointee in the agency.
Artemis survived the transfer of power, now what?
The program is receiving a comprehensive review. The group of eight scientists and space policy experts tasked with reviewing NASA for Biden’s transition team raised the hood on Trump’s swift moon hopping plan, announced by then-Vice President Mike Pence in early 2019. drew up a list of things within Artemis that should remain in and things that should stay out of to inform the NASA team review.
“One thing that was absolutely fashionable was continuity of purpose,” says Lal, who has advised previous administrations on space policy and was the top space expert on Biden’s team during the transition. “We weren’t going to throw away everything that had happened in the last few years and start over.”
Lal joined NASA in February and is now helping lead the ongoing Artemis review within the agency, carrying out the guidance he helped write during the transition.
That review covers all the pillars of Artemis, including the Space Launch System (SLS), the gigantic rocket that will launch the first crews of astronauts to the Moon in the Orion capsule. It also includes reviewing the program schedule, international partnerships, and developing a budget that Congress will like. The review will also refine planned activities on the Moon and identify places where more commercial activities can be involved, Lal says.
Nothing is set in stone yet. The review is ongoing and Biden, nearly two months into his presidency, has yet to elect his NASA administrator. That’s no surprise: It took Trump nearly eight months to nominate his administrator, Jim Bridenstine, and nearly another eight months to get Senate confirmation. It took four months before Barack Obama appointed Charles Bolden, and about ten months before George Bush appointed Sean O’Keefe.
Get to the moon, but not by 2024
NASA aims to continue its investment in SLS and Orion while monitoring private sector rockets for help if needed. “SLS and Orion will provide the initial transportation to and from lunar orbit beyond Artemis, and any proven commercial transportation can make up for gaps, if any,” says Lal.
By the time the Boeing-built SLS flies for the first time (likely sometime next year, nearly three years later than planned), the agency will have spent nearly $ 20 billion on the program, NASA’s inspector general reported on Monday. last year, with every release thereafter. reaching around $ 2 billion.
There are cheaper commercial rockets built by firms such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and the United Launch Alliance, but they are currently only prepared to launch individual pieces of the Artemis program into space. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will launch the first two elements of NASA’s Lunar Gateway, a planned space station orbiting the Moon.
Whenever possible, NASA needs to “maintain multiple vendors of launch vehicles, landers, spacecraft, across the enterprise so that the United States is not overly reliant on one system or vendor,” says Lal. That’s the established spirit in NASA’s human lunar landing system program, the centerpiece of Artemis that aims to choose two different landers capable of carrying astronauts to the lunar surface.
But Congress, while strongly supportive of the Artemis program, opposed the Trump administration’s request for $ 3.3 billion to fund the rapid development of those landing modules. Instead, he gave NASA $ 850 million for lander development, hitting the final nail in the coffin for Trump’s 2024 goal, which many in the space industry considered unattainable.
Biden’s NASA will set a more manageable schedule, Lal says. “One of the findings of the transition team was that 2024, given congressional appropriations for at least the last two years, 2024 was not realistic.” Setting a new date is tied to making a budget acceptable to Congress, “which is a question mark” at this point, Lal says.
International partnerships, with Artemis and beyond
“Honoring commitments made to international partners” was a key tenet of the transition team’s findings, Lal says, whether on the International Space Station or in the Artemis Accords, a set of multilateral agreements with US space allies. . Those partners include Russia, a US adversary but longtime NASA partner on the ISS, where the shared goal of maintaining a healthy orbital laboratory supersedes messy stresses on Earth.
But the NASA-Russia relationship is changing. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has been reluctant to extend its alliance with NASA to the moon, and last year the United States tried to exclude Russia from early talks on the Artemis Accords. This week, Russia followed through on its claims to ditch Artemis by announcing a new deal with China to build a rival lunar base and lunar-orbiting space station, cementing a new front in an increasingly polarized race into deep space.
NASA is courting its own allies for Artemis, but is banned from collaborating with China, thanks to a 2011 law called the Wolf Amendment, named after the now-retired Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA). But as Beijing improves its game on the Moon, some of Biden’s space advisers have argued against China’s policy of exclusion. “Trying to exclude them I think is a failed strategy,” said former astronaut Pam Melroy. Political last year, before joining Biden’s NASA transition team.
Lal squashes the prospects for cooperation between NASA and China under Biden’s NASA: “I don’t expect collaborations from China, at least in the Artemis program, in any way.”
She says the NASA-Russia relationship, on the other hand, should continue for the foreseeable future. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t collaborate with them on deep space activities.” Despite the fact that Russia withdrew from NASA’s Lunar Gateway program, NASA said in a statement to The edge on Wednesday they “offered to continue exploring interoperability and we welcome such a discussion.”
International relations could extend to NASA’s climate science operations, a calmer side of the space agency that is expected to grow under Biden. Last month, Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk had a phone call with Russia’s Space Chief Dmitry Rogozin where Jurczyk discussed “NASA’s approach to climate change studies with the help of space technology. “according to a Roscosmos statement. Rogozin “supported the idea of cooperating in this field,” the statement said.
Lal says it is too early to discuss what specific plans are in the works to further NASA’s role in Biden’s broad climate agenda. But she says it’s not just about expanding current programs or increasing the workload of NASA’s existing fleet of meteorological satellites – it’s also about starting new programs on both the national and international fronts.
“Climate is an area where we are joined at the hips,” she says. Like the space station, where astronaut safety prevails over geopolitics, “it may even be necessary to work with some of our adversaries” on an agreement to share crucial climate data.