Main Engine Cut Off

Artemis

The Moon 2024 initiative finally has a name, and it kicks ass—Artemis. That came yesterday as the White House released a summary of its budget amendment for Artemis. The amendment is for $1.6 billion above the $21 billion request made previously, and breaks down like this:

  • $1 billion for a human lunar landing system
  • $321 million less for Gateway, descoped to only propulsion and a habitat/transfer node
  • $651 million additional for SLS/Orion (as yet unexplained)
  • $132 million for “exploration technology” (whatever that entails)
  • $90 million for what seems like additional payloads to the lunar poles before humans land there

This is obviously going to kick off all sorts of Congressional drama, as now this heads to Congress to decide what they’ll do with it. This is just about the messiest political year ever, and there’s talk of fiscal year 2020 running fully on continuing resolutions and not actually getting a budget, so that doesn’t inspire much hope.

However, there seems to be some mass cognitive dissonance that I can’t get my head around, and it comes in two flavors:

  • NASA needs to do things in new ways with less costly methods of contracting and acquisition, yet a program like this should still cost $40 billion
  • $1.6 billion is a laughably small amount, they should have requested more, and given us a 5-year total number as well, yet Democrats in Congress are sure to reject even this laughably small initial funding

Starting “small” makes sense for one reason: if you can’t even get funding to start the lander program in earnest, then the entire program is toast.

The intentions of this budget amendment are very clear—big Gateway is out, skinny Gateway is in, and we need to start a lander program. Why argue over EVA suits before you even get the lander program started?

It’s a pretty great week for that conversation, as a company with massive funding just announced a lander program of their own that is realistic and achievable on the timescales needed for Artemis. I’m even told that Orion/Gateway/etc can get into a 24-hour elliptical lunar orbit (lower than the 6-day NRHO), and that from there, a tug/transfer stage would probably not be needed for Blue Moon.

So let’s get a contract in place for Blue Origin to develop Blue Moon in accordance with NASA standards, get Lockheed started on an Orion-derived ascent stage, and we’ve got ourselves a plan.

All that said, I think we have massive spending and budgeting issues in the US government, so that makes me nervous for any increases. Sure, this is small relative to the overall pie, but I don’t think we can go on forever like this.

And it always bears mentioning: I don’t necessarily think NASA needs more money, they need more focus. The descoping of Gateway and the focus on the lander program in the amendment does give me at least a little glimmer of hope.