WASHINGTON — As the country pauses to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, lawmakers are examining NASA’s plan to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024.
- NASA's Jim Bridenstine questioned by Senate Commerce Committee
- Bridenstine urged lawmakers to provide funding for NASA all at once
- Follow our Apollo 11 coverage | Space coverage
- RELATED: Federal Lawmakers Eager to Get Americans Back on the Moon
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine faced tough questions from lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee, many questioning whether the 2024 goal is realistic as the agency faces budget concerns and missed deadlines.
“We have a long history at NASA of cost and schedule not being set in a realistic way, and then of course not achieving our cost and schedule and in many ways, that leads to a lack in confidence,” Bridenstine said in response to questions from lawmakers on Wednesday.
As budget negotiations are underway, Bridenstine urged lawmakers to provide funding for the agency all at once, instead of the current stopgap spending bill that has been floated by the Trump Administration, warning that the full-year budget proposal will have consequences.
“We don’t have money in the budget right now to develop a lander, it takes a good bit of time, which is why we need to get started right away,” Bridenstine explained.
“If we end up in a (continuing resolution) of a year or even more, it would be devastating for trying to achieve the goal of landing the next man and first woman on the south pole.”
Even though the current budget proposal would provide a steady stream of funding, Bridenstine explained that it would be detrimental.
“The reality is that we then do not make investments that we need to make but even worse, we continue to make investments that we don’t need to make, and if fact it is a waste of money” he said.
"That’s my biggest concern. We will be spending money on things we don’t need and not spending money on things we do need,” Bridenstine added.
In this current polarized political environment, multi-year budget proposals have been nearly impossible, which could delay the timeline of the mission.
“It delays everything. It’s frustrating but I remain optimistic. Whether it’s next month that we see a breakthrough or two years, I am going to do everything I can,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R) Florida, a member of the Commerce Committee.
Developing a Strategy
The agency has been scrambling to develop a strategy since March when the Trump Administration ordered NASA to put Americans back on the moon four years earlier than originally planned.
Lawmakers also expressed concern with several leadership changes within the agency after the Administrator ousted the top two managers of the Artemis program last weeks.
“In order to reset the cost and schedule of some programs, we've made changes at the top,” Bridenstine explained in response to questions from Senators.
“Certainly we have very experienced, highly qualified folks in acting positions, in those key positions mainly in human exploration and operations. They may end up applying for the positions and getting the positions. We are opening it up to the entire nation. We want to move quickly, I think that’s important,” he said.
Lawmakers expressed other concerns about NASA’s bold vision.
“NASA has yet to deliver a congressional budget for the mission beyond 2020. So, it’s difficult for us to approve the mission if we don’t know what the cost will be to taxpayers,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington).
Bridenstine said the agency won’t have a budget plan for its 2024 moon trip to Congress until February and admitted developing it is a challenge.
“There is a very difficult process here where we are not mass producing automobiles, for example. We are inventing things for the first time, developing things for the first time,” he explained.
The Trump Administration has asked Congress for an additional $1.6 billion in the upcoming budget year for the lunar mission. However, Bridenstine has previously said the agency likely will need $20-30 billion to reach the 2024 goal.