NASA budget, Jim Bridenstine begin detailing moon mission
NASA concept art for the Gateway lunar orbiter.

NASA concept art for the Gateway lunar orbiter
'It's about having a sustainable human presence on and around the moon.'

President Donald Trump‘s 2020 budget fully funds NASA’s newly redirected mission of heading to the moon and then to Mars as well as commercial space and earth science research, Administrator Jim Bridenstine declared in unveiling the proposals Monday.

Speaking at Kennedy Space Center, Bridenstine declared that the moon-to-support-Mars mission, which Trump ordered early on in his administration, will be feature an “all-NASA” approach, which he defined as requiring that all of NASA’s other missions, including study of the sun, study of the Earth, and study of outer space, will be focused in ways to support lunar missions that would eventually support a Martian mission.

“NASA’s budget request from the President of the United States is strong and we have strong bipartisan support in both chambers of commerce,’ Bridenstine said.

Central to all that are budget requests totaling nearly $1.2 billion in the agency’s 2020 budget proposal to support development of the “Gateway” lunar orbit space vehicle and various other hardware to support missions around and to the moon, in what Bridenstine called a “sustainable” presence, robotic and eventually human. That’s up from $140 million in the current fiscal year budget and $17 million last year.

Overall, the President’s NASA budget proposal for the fiscal 2020 year is $21 billion, with science research programs taking most of the budget cuts. That’s down slightly from $21.5 million in the current fiscal year. The biggest cuts are in various science programs.

The NASA budget request does not detail any specific new construction programs at Kennedy Space Center. Yet the budget requests and Bridenstine’s emphases on the moon and Mars missions and development of a broad and robust commercial space industry all point to increased activity at KSC and Cape Canaveral, where the big launches will occur.

Bridenstine also talked about launching hardware to the moon soon, as early as 2020, in research preparation.

“It’s about having a sustainable human presence on and around the moon,” Bridenstine said of Trump’s “Directive 1” authorizing a moon mission. “In order to achieve that we need a permanent command and service module in and around the moon. We call it Gateway, and it’s fully funded in this President’s request.”

This year’s budget request for Gateway: $821 million, up from zero last year.

Bridenstine’s budget addressed laid out rationale for moon missions. He noted that the Apollo missions to the moon never explored the lunar poles, and since then scientists have discovered hundreds of millions of tons of water ice at the poles. He used that as an example of why and how NASA will go back, this time for extended missions.

“What Gateway represents is not just an opportunity to go to the moon over and over again in a sustainable architecture, but it represents an opportunity to get to more parts of the moon than ever before,” he said. “Our goal is to not just land in one spot in one part of the moon in learn a whole lot about all of the things that are happening in one kilometer around that spot. What we’re interested in doing is learning all about the entire moon.”

And that segues to what had been, prior to Trump’s administration, NASA’s next big thing, an eventual human exploration of Mars, which is expected in the 2030s. What is learned on the moon will help prepare for that, including determining ways of extracting water, oxygen and fuel from the ice, he said. The moon station also is seen as a way station for travel farther into space, including to Mars.

For both of those missions, NASA also needs to complete development of its next big rocket, the Space Launch System, and the Orion deep-space capsule. Budget requests for those two items are down slightly from what has been provided this year and last. Yet Bridenstine insisted they are getting “very strong” funding and remain critical priorities.

“This is a transformational capability for the United States of America,” he said of the SLS.

And, because the Orion capsule now is being programmed to take astronauts to where they can make a lunar landing, he spoke of it as the first time NASA’s budget proposal has included money for a human-rated lunar lander in over 10 years.

The Mars mission plans are fully funded in the 2020 budget request, he said.

Among other items:

– Bridenstine spoke of commercial space companies, including SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and others as growing in their potential to serve missions to lower-Earth orbit, whether it’s for NASA or not. The budget requests $2.1 billion for commercial cargo and crew programs. Though NASA hopes SpaceX can have a test mission that includes astronauts this summer, and Boeing shortly after that, the budget does not call for any commercial crew launches until the 2021 budget year.

“We have seen what happens when we at NASA in lower-Earth orbit, we become one customer among many customers of a robust commercial marketplace in lower-Earth orbit,” he said. “And at the same time having numerous providers who are competing on cost and innovation. Why is that so important? Because we need to drive down costs. We need to increase access. We need to make spaceflight more available to more people. That includes commercial activities. … We need to develop that very robust commercial marketplace in lower-Earth orbit.”

– Though Bridenstine did not use the words “climate change” or “global warming” he spoke directly to the concept, using the term “ecosystem change,” assuring that it was real and manmade, and pledging that NASA will be fully funded to study it as it had been doing under the administration of President Barack Obama.

NASA’s earth sciences program, criticized by many in Congress for focusing on climate change, is down slightly in the budget request, to about $1.8 billion.

“When we think about ecosystem change, which, friends, it is changing. Carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. It is in levels we’ve never seen before. We are responsible for that. It is a greenhouse gas. NASA has an obligation to continue studying these activities,” he said.

– Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, a huge, expensive, over-budget, behind-schedule space telescope that has received Congressional criticism, is proposed at $352 million, down slightly from $375 million last year.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].


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