Will an empty promise from the CHIPS Act return the US to the moon?

Will an empty promise from the CHIPS Act return the US to the moon?

NASA’s next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), with its Orion crew capsule on top, sits on the pad early in the morning before the unmanned Artemis 1 mission was scrubbed, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, August 29 , 2022. /Reuters

NASA’s next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), with its Orion crew capsule on top, sits on the pad early in the morning before the unmanned Artemis 1 mission was scrubbed, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, US, August 29 , 2022. /Reuters

To no one’s surprise, but many’s disappointment, the long-awaited debut of NASA’s Artemis I mission was delayed again on August 28.

The mission, which includes a Space Launch System (SLS) and an Orion crew capsule, aims to land Americans on the moon more than half a century after the Apollo’s last lunar mission.

Monday’s delay was unsurprising after more than 16 postponements since the program began over a decade ago, and served as another expenditure burning on NASA’s balance sheet.

An audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released on November 15, 2021, stated the agency’s spending on the Artemis program is projected to reach $93 billion by 2025.

In March 2022, the agency requested nearly $26 billion for its 2023 budget to fund the Artemis mission and lunar landing, among other things, as it aims to put astronauts on Mars by 2040.

Kathryn Lueders, NASA’s source selection authority, claimed that as of April 2021, the money allocated by Congress was only enough to support the development of a single crewed Artemis lander, as stated in her assessment of contractor selection for the rocket ship. Elon Musk’s SpaceX beat out Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Leidos subsidiary Dynetics for the contract.

US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a US Senate Budget Committee hearing about US President Joe Biden’s budget plan for fiscal year 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, March 30, 2022. /Reuters

US Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a US Senate Budget Committee hearing about US President Joe Biden’s budget plan for fiscal year 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, March 30, 2022. /Reuters

The Senate in June 2021 approved the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which granted NASA just over $10 billion to fund a crewed moon lander and required the agency to find a second company for the project.

Meanwhile, the House presented the America COMPETES Act as a companion measure to USICA, but didn’t include a NASA authorization.

The Senate adopted a modified version of USICA in May 2022 after Senator Bernie Sanders asked lawmakers to cut the $10 billion proposal, citing concerns about federal funds going to companies owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos.

Sanders, long critical of Bezos for what the senator has called “illegal anti-union activity” at Amazon – the technology and commerce giant founded and chaired by Bezos, has criticized the NASA funds as a “$10 billion bailout to Jeff Bezos to fuel his space hobby.”

The two chambers then held a conference committee meeting to reach a compromise, and when the bill was finalized and signed off by US President Joe Biden on August 9, the $10 billion fund was nowhere to be found.

Tea CHIPS Act became a much narrow bill, with more than $50 billion to boost US semiconductor manufacturing and scientific research.

The act did, however, include a NASA authorization bill, approving its participation in the International Space Station (ISS) program through September 2030.

It requires NASA to establish a Moon to Mars program that includes “Artemis missions and activities, to achieve the goal of human exploration of Mars” with a program office and program director.

To date, NASA has chosen not to establish Artemis as a “program.” Rather it is a set of individual projects.

Such an approach has been criticized by governmental and NASA officials for lacking integrity and accountability.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson speaks at the NASA’s advisory council meeting on August 9, 2022. /NASA

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson speaks at the NASA’s advisory council meeting on August 9, 2022. /NASA

Shortly after the bill was signed, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told members of the NASA Advisory Council he was satisfied with it.

“In our NASA authorization, we have basically gotten what we need,” he said.

Nelson said he is turning his attention to the ongoing fiscal year 2023 appropriations process.

According to the OIG audit, the production cost of a single SLS/Orion system is projected to be $4.1 billion per launch.

“Looking ahead, without capturing, accurately reporting and reducing the cost of future SLS/Orion missions, the agency will face significant challenges to sustaining its Artemis program in its current configuration,” the November report added.

Two Artemis missions are needed before NASA could land astronauts back on the moon by 2025, though many experts believe that time frame is likely to slip by a few years.

“Given the time needed to develop and test the human landing system and NASA’s next generation spacesuits, we estimate the date for a crewed lunar landing likely will slip to 2026 at the earliest,” NASA’s Inspector General Paul Martin said during a House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee hearing on March 1.

For comparison, the US spent $28 billion on NASA’s Apollo moon program between 1960 and 1973, that’s about $280 billion in today’s dollars.

Whether NASA can set foot on the moon again by 2025 remains to be seen, but a successful Artemis launch is the first hurdle.

The agency has rescheduled the launch to saturday.

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