One of the biggest questions about space policy under the Biden administration is whether the president will embrace the Artemis Moon program set into motion by the Trump White House. This plan called for a return of humans to the Moon and the build up over time of a lunar base. Former Vice President Mike Pence set an aggressive timeline for the first Moon landing to occur—2024.
It has been clear for many months that this timeline was unattainable, and the final nail in the coffin came in December, when Congress provided just $850 million for a Human Landing System in the fiscal year 2021 budget. This is only one-quarter of what NASA said it needed to have any hope of making the 2024 landing date.
Congress steps up
Because of this middling funding level it was not clear how supportive Congress was of the Artemis plan. But on Wednesday, 11 Democratic senators sent a letter to the Biden administration urging support for the Human Landing System program, which is the critical hardware needed to enable a human return to the Moon.
“Developing the next generation crewed lunar lander is an essential step in returning astronauts to the Moon for the first time in half a century, including the historic milestone of landing the first woman on the Moon,” states the letter.
The letter appears to have been spurred by NASA’s decision to delay a down-select of three teams currently working to develop lunar landers; one is led by Blue Origin, a second by Dynetics, and a third by SpaceX. Signatories from the letter include senators from several states represented by Blue Origin’s “National Team,” including Colorado and Washington. Not surprisingly, the letter emphasizes the jobs this program will yield.
After a 10-month base period that began last year, during which each team refined details of their proposals, NASA was due to choose two proposals this month to move forward into development. However, last week the agency said it was delaying that decision by 60 days for additional evaluation. This is likely because NASA wanted to give the Biden administration more time to determine its path forward on Artemis.
The senators wrote that NASA should stick to its original timeline. “We urge you to proceed with the planned selection and to include all necessary funding for (the Human Landing System) in your FY 2022 budget request,” the letter said.
It is curious that the senators do not acknowledge that it was Congress who failed to provide the full funding requested by the White House for lunar landers this year, not the other way around. But all the same, this seems like a fairly strong statement of intent that the Senate will support the lander program going forward.
Et tu, Biden?
The Biden administration has barely been in office for two weeks, and it has a lot on its plate. So perhaps it is not surprising that a nominee for administrator has not yet been named, nor a space policy been outlined in detail. Such details typically do not come out early in new administrations. The need to now make (or punt) on a decision on the lunar landers will offer us an early glimpse of the Biden administration’s intentions toward human spaceflight.
During Wednesday’s press briefing at the White House, FOX News’ Kristin Fisher asked about space. (Fisher has cred on the subject; she’s the daughter of two space shuttle astronauts). One of her questions asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki about the Artemis program and where the Biden administration stood on the subject.
“I am personally interested in space,” Psaki responded. “I think it’s a fascinating area of study. But I have not spoken with our team about this particular program.” She promised to get more information and follow up with Fisher. As of Thursday morning, we’ve yet to see additional information.
There is a path forward here for President Biden if he wants to approach space in a bipartisan manner. Although this letter came from Democrats, there are plenty of Republicans in Congress who support the Artemis plan outlined by the Trump administration. Everyone (including the senators, who did not mention a landing date in their letter) would probably agree that a 2026 or a 2028 Moon landing is more realistic under the current budget, with only modest increases necessary.
“Proposing to grow NASA to accommodate both Artemis and a renewed investment in its science programs would be an easy political win for the Biden administration if they wish to take it.” Casey Dreier of The Planetary Society told Ars.
So what happens now? It’s likely that the Biden administration will be forced to accelerate its timeline on space policy at a time when a slate of new hires is only just settling in—an acting chief of staff, Bhavya Lal, was just named last week after all. Ultimately, the smart bet is that while the Artemis program may be modified to some extent, it could very well continue.