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Nasa Asks Congress for ‘Down Payment’ to Boost Troubled Lunar Mission

Proposed budget amendment seeks additional $1.6b for design and development, but it may not be enough.

An artist concept of NASA's Block 1 SLS configuration in flight. The SLS is an advanced, heavy-lift rocket that will provide an entirely new capability for science and human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. (Image Credit: NASA)
An artist concept of NASA's Block 1 SLS configuration in flight. The SLS is an advanced, heavy-lift rocket that will provide an entirely new capability for science and human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit. (Image Credit: NASA)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on Monday asked the United States Congress to approve an additional $1.6 billion in funding to the agency in order to bolster efforts to return America to the moon. The request will add to the $19.5 billion that U.S. President Donald Trump had earlier pledged for the lunar mission.

In a statement, NASA said that the additional amount is a down payment on the efforts of the agency to land American citizens on the moon by 2024. The press brief further added that the requested funds are needed to proceed forward with the design and development of the exploration mission.

But the additional funding may not be sufficient to put Americans on the moon once again. ArsTechnica reports that NASA administrator Jim Bredenstein on Monday warned that the agency would need more funding for the lunar project in the coming years, and the $1.6 billion was only enough to get NASA out of the gate. According to the technology website, two people familiar with internal deliberations at NASA also claim the actual cost of the mission could be more than double the current budgetary allocation.

Trump tweeted in favor of the NASA administration before the official announcement by the agency, saying he supports the plan to return Americans to space in a big way. The initial $19.5 billion authorized for the lunar mission by Trump in March was the first such bill signed for NASA since 2012.

Boots on the Moon

In December 2017, the Trump administration adopted Space Policy Directive 1, an initiative aimed towards building government partnerships with commercial space companies to accelerate plans to put American boots on the lunar surface. The directive also outlined the need for exploration missions to the planet Mars and beyond.

The change in U.S. policy came on the recommendations of National Space Council, a body headed by Vice President Mike Pence. In October 2017, the council had announced a renewed commitment to American leadership in space, proposing human missions to the moon, Mars and possibly other bodies of the solar system as a means of achieving it, and showcasing technical and scientific superiority over rival nations.

An artist's rendering of the Space Launch System Block 1 sitting on Launch Pad 39A with the Orion spacecraft at sunrise. (Image Credit: NASA)
An artist’s rendering of the Space Launch System Block 1 sitting on Launch Pad 39A with the Orion spacecraft at sunrise. (Image Credit: NASA)

The plan for a return to the lunar surface, made public by Pence in March 2019, included a proposal to send the first woman to the moon. Back in 1969, the U.S. became the first country to send humans to the lunar surface, when two male astronauts aboard Apollo 11 landed their spacecraft on the moon. Since then, ten other men have had the honor of walking on the moon, but no woman has yet achieve the feat.

NASA on Monday also revealed that the new lunar mission will be named Artemis, revered as a moon goddess and the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology. NASA administrator Bridenstine told the media that the latest lunar mission would likely carry one man and one woman to the moon.

Private Sector Could Give NASA a Boost

CNN reports that the original plan for an American return to the moon was scheduled to be 2028, which has been brought forward by the Trump administration to 2024, the last year of the second term of Trump, should he be reelected in 2020. It is unclear whether NASA will be able to meet the new deadline, claims the news outlet.

There have been repeated delays to the Boeing launch vehicle supposed to ferry astronauts to the moon. The rocket, named Space Launch System (SLS), should have been ready by late 2017, with the space agency having to spend more than $11 billion for manufacturing SLS up to that point

According to ArsTechnica, the additional funds requested by NASA would go towards not only the accelerated development of SLS, but also cater to the designing of a lunar lander, new spacesuits for women, and for building elements of Lunar Gateway—a small space station type lunar object. The components making up the gateway would be launched on commercial rockets, a move seen as a means of speeding up the mission.

On May 10, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had unveiled a new lunar lander that would be capable of taking humans and scientific equipment to the lunar surface by 2024. Blue Origin, a space firm owned by Bezos, is developing launch vehicles to take such payloads to space as well. Blue Origin has signed agreements with NASA to test rockets at select launch facilities too.

Similarly, Elon Musk’s company Space X has been working on developing reusable launch vehicles for taking payloads into space. The firm has also outlined plans to put humans on the planet Mars in the next decade. With research suggesting that private firms are more efficient as compared to public ones when it comes to innovation in space, the progress of these two tech giants will be closely monitored over the next few years.

The success of these commercial space firms is also indicative of the increased public-private partnership in space that the Trump administration is championing. As NASA aims for a permanent human presence on the moon, private space firms will likely provide cost-benefit technology manufacturing which will aid the U.S. in its bid to remain a space leader.

Usman Kabir covers science, space, and technology for Globely News. As a kid, he would make models of the solar system and take part in water rocket competitions. His childhood obsession has led him to a degree in Space Science. Usman likes to spend his free time watching reruns of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Seinfeld."

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