The U.S. space agency NASA aspires to land humans on the moon every year for 12 consecutive years, Administrator Bill Nelson testified to a congressional committee Wednesday in support of a request to boost the agency’s fiscal 2022 budget.
Nelson acknowledged to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that the agency’s budget for fiscal 2021 included $850 million toward the development of a lunar lander as part of an ambitious, roughly $3 billion Human Landing System program.
“But there needs to be a landing each year for a dozen years, so there are many more awards to come if you all decide that it’s in the interest of the United States to appropriate that money,” Nelson said.
The Biden administration has proposed a 6.6% increase to NASA’s current budget for 2022, amounting to a $24.8 billion request from Congress. The funding would support sending additional rovers to Mars, continuing International Space Station operations, initiating probes to Venus and sending manned flights to the moon by 2024.
Nelson spent 18 years as a U.S. senator before President Joe Biden appointed him as NASA’s 14th administrator.
Members of the Science, Space and Technology Committee asked Nelson how NASA would use the new funding to preserve America’s title as the world’s preeminent space agency through programs focused on space exploration, space technology and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
Many of the questions were explicitly tied to concern about China’s advancements in space technology and exploration.
“China clearly is in space for the long term, and we need to recognize that and respond accordingly,” committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson said early in the hearing.
Nelson repeatedly emphasized that congressional approval of NASA’s proposed 2022 budget would better position the U.S. to compete with China by first returning humans to the moon and eventually landing them on Mars.
China led the world in orbital space launches in 2018 and 2019, but it was overtaken by the U.S. in 2020 through partnerships with private aerospace companies such as SpaceX. China also was the second country ever to successfully land a rover on Mars, which it did in May.
In response to China-oriented questions from Representative Michael Waltz, Nelson indicated he supported making the Wolf Amendment permanent. The 2011 law prohibits NASA from directly cooperating with the Chinese government and Chinese companies on any government-funded activities without the approval of Congress.
“That doesn’t mean that we can’t find areas of cooperation, and those areas are deconfliction of space assets running into each other [and] trying to get them to participate in getting rid of all of that space junk,” Nelson said.
Several members pressed Nelson for a concrete plan about how NASA would return to the moon, and he committed to releasing it soon after an August ruling is released by the Government Accountability Office regarding the agency’s Human Landing System.
The GAO is reviewing protests filed by aerospace company Blue Origin and information technology company Dynetics in response to a $2.9 billion contract assigned to SpaceX for assembly of the next lunar lander, which is part of NASA’s Artemis program. NASA has delayed the HLS contract with SpaceX until the GAO announces its decision.
Project Artemis is a plan to return humans, specifically the first woman and first person of color, to the moon, which was initiated by the Trump administration.
Nelson announced during the hearing that the first unmanned test flight for Project Artemis is set to launch in November, adding that the propulsion system to be used will be the “most powerful rocket ever.”
Lawmakers noted that the Biden administration had asked for only $1.2 billion in its 2022 budget request for the HLS — roughly a third smaller than the Trump administration’s 2021 proposal.
Nelson countered by pointing out that Congress only appropriated $850 million of the $3.3 billion NASA originally requested for fiscal 2021 to start developing a lunar lander.
“The Congress appropriated $850 million, and so, you can only get so many pounds of potatoes out of a five-pound sack,” Nelson said. “If you all are generous, whatever vehicle you use … then we’re going to try to rev it up.”
The 2022 budget request includes plans for five space launches under the Artemis program and the construction of a lunar satellite and a small space station that orbits the moon.
The budget also proposes a $300 million increase in Earth science programs, an area of NASA funding cut by the Trump administration.
The deadline to approve the budget, including allocations for NASA, is September 30.