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Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says that competition is good for the Artemis Moon program.NASA

The odds of NASA sending humans back to the Moon by 2024 are long—not zero, but pretty close.

Probably the biggest near-term impediment the space agency faces is funding. Specifically, NASA requires an additional $3.2 billion in fiscal year 2021 to allow contractors to begin constructing one or more landers to take astronauts down to the Moon's surface from a high lunar orbit. This is a 12 percent increase to NASA's budget overall.

The 2021 fiscal year begins in a week, on October 1. The US Congress recently passed a "continuing resolution" that will keep the government funded through December 11. By that time, after the 2020 election, it is hoped that the House and Senate can agree on a budget that would fund priorities for the remainder of the fiscal year.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said this week that funding the Artemis Moon Program before the end of this year would be workable. "If we can have that done before Christmas, we're still on track for a 2024 Moon landing," he said in a call with reporters.

The real question is whether Congress, if it can agree on a fiscal year 2021 budget in this sharp partisan era, is so inclined to support funding for the lander. This is a brand-new program that will eventually require many billions of dollars to reach fruition. In deliberations earlier this year, the US House provided only $600 million, or less than one-fifth of the budget NASA said its needs for the coming year.

So says the Senate

Wednesday provided the first opportunity to assess, publicly at least, whether the Senate will be more supportive of the Artemis Program and its aggressive 2024 goal.

In his opening statement, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget, Jerry Moran, had kind words to say about Artemis. But he noted that NASA's request for a larger budget came amidst the backdrop of a pandemic and resulting financial crisis.

"Our world has significantly altered since the initial release of the budget, and I look forward to discussing how NASA is adapting to our new and unprecedented environment while pushing forward with Artemis," Moran said.

The ranking Democratic member of the committee appeared to be even less supportive. New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen noted that NASA's proposed budget again cut funding for STEM education and did not support the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. "We know that NASA needs to be about more than just a single Moonshot," she chided Bridenstine. Shaheen characterized the 12 percent budget increase sought as "generous."

Later during a question-and-answer period, Moran asked Bridenstine whether it might be more practical for NASA to quickly pick a single contractor to build the lander so the agency could concentrate its resources.

Bridenstine pushed back on this, citing the value of competition. Earlier this year, the space agency selected three teams—led by Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX—to flesh out lander proposals and tell NASA how much government funding they thought would be needed to complete the projects by 2024. With this information, NASA plans to "down-select" from this initial group of three landing teams in February.

One, two, or three?

There has been chatter in the aerospace community, in recent months, that one or more of the laRead More – Source

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