NASA rattles the tin for an extra $1.6bn to keep 2024 lunar hopes alive

Just a downpayment, says administrator Jim Bridenstine

US President Donald Trump has put at least some money where his mouth is and requested an additional $1.6bn to land US astronauts on the Moon by 2024.

The cash (subject to approval) comes in the form of an amendment (PDF) to the president's initial $21bn FY 2020 budget request for NASA and, as one would expect, the agency has already said "additional funds will be required" with a new estimate needed for the FY 2021 budget request.

The amendment is merely a "down payment", according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

There is also, of course, no guarantee the request, which represents around a quarter of a Wall (depending on which estimate you use), will make it past US lawmakers.

Of the new cash, $1bn is to be spent on a system to land humans on the Moon and NASA is expected to purchase a commercial lander in order to do the job. Lucky that Jeff Bezos unveiled just the thing only last week, eh?

Because astronauts will be riding in Orion capsules atop NASA's monster Space Launch System (SLS), $651m is earmarked to prevent the schedule for the first launch of the SLS continuing its relentless slide to the right.

In order to stand a chance of sticking a flag in the Lunar surface before the end of a potential Trump second term 2024, the first launch, dubbed Exploration Mission 1, must fly by 2020 and lob an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon. 2022 will see Expedition Mission 2 and astronauts perched atop the thing. The third launch, in 2024, will then put 'nauts on the Moon.

In comparison, it took Apollo two Saturn V launches before NASA risked a crew and it wasn't until the sixth Saturn V, less than two years after the first launch, that Apollo 11 made its landing.

As well as the big ticket items, $132m has also been earmarked for technologies to make lunar exploration a little more sustainable, including solar electric propulsion and a demonstration of a process to convert polar ice to water as well as $90m for robots to trundle around and explore the Moon's polar regions.

Eagle-eyed readers will have noted that the figures don't add up. To that end, $321m has been excised from the budget of NASA's lunar Gateway project, with the mini station refocused on that 2024 landing goal.

Reducing the scope of the Gateway raises the spectre of Apollo-style short-termism rather than the sustainable approach NASA had hoped for, although the agency insists that it will create a long-term lunar presence by 2028.

Still, the mission does now have a name. Bridenstine announced it would be Artemis, named for the sister of Apollo. Not Moon Trump 1 then.

The capsule ferrying astronauts is named "Orion" who, in some versions of myth, ends up being killed by Artemis. Something for nervous 'nauts to ponder on their way to a rendezvous with the regolith. ®

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