Courtesy of NASA/JPL/USGS


U.S. Vice-President Pence recently announced the Trump Administration’s goal of returning American astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. That NASA plan is nicknamed “Artemis.”

Last week the Administration delivered to Congress an amendment to its initially proposed fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget to reflect this ambitious new goal.

Credit: NASA



Pell grant reductions

However, a just-posted message from the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) suggests that Artemis is an “ill-defined and untested proposal.”

“The budget amendment contained proposals to add a total of $1.6 billion to NASA’s FY20 budget, offset by reductions to the Pell Grant program in the Department of Education.

The amendment also contained a proposal to give the NASA Administrator the authority to transfer funds between appropriations accounts “…in the event that the Administrator determines that the transfers are necessary in support of establishment of a U.S. strategic presence on the Moon.”

Concern raised

As noted in the AAS/DPS posting:

“The proposed reductions to the Pell Grant program are certainly a concern for any organization that cares about the training of current and future generations of researchers and educators in our disciplines. There will be fierce opposition in Congress to this proposed budgetary offset.

“NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has publicly stated on at least a couple of occasions that it doesn’t make sense to cut science programs to achieve human exploration goals — mostly because Congress is opposed to such moves — and we take him at his word. However, this initial $1.6 billion augmentation is only a down payment, and some outside experts have put the likely additional annual funding augmentation need closer to $4-8 billion. While trimming science programs won’t come close to filling such budgetary holes, the proposed transfer authority is an item for serious concern should push come to shove in achieving the 2024 goal.

“One reason for this concern is that such transfers and communications to Congress about them take place in the shadows, outside of the sunshine of the normal public Congressional appropriations process.”

Private lunar landers.
Credit: Blue Origin/Blue Moon

Science priorities

Furthermore, the AAS/DPS posting adds:

“In addition to the Administration’s already-proposed Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP) — which the House Appropriations Committee appears to be on track to support — the new $1.6 billion amendment allocates $90 million to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) ‘for the purchase of commercial services to deliver a rover to…explore the Moon’s polar regions in advance of a human mission.’

Since the changes in civilian space policy to return to the Moon have occurred after the last planetary science decadal survey in 2013 and that survey’s midterm assessment in 2018, there is not a community-wide consensus on where the Administration’s proposed lunar science program would rank within the relative priorities for lunar science, let alone within the priorities for the overall planetary science enterprise.

The primary new lunar mission prioritized by the 2013 planetary decadal was the Lunar Geophysical Network (recommended for inclusion in the fifth New Frontiers competition). The 2013 survey also reaffirmed the 2003 survey’s Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return mission for the fifth New Frontiers competition since it wasn’t selected in the fourth New Frontiers round.

Example of a landing site traverse: This image depicts Malapert massif to South Pole-Aitken basin center.
Credit: E.J. Allender et al./Advances in Space Research

The current astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey is likely to consider lunar far-side project proposals, and the upcoming planetary science decadal survey will certainly need to consider the changes to civil space policy and commercial spaceflight capabilities as they impact the survey committee’s holistic approach to prioritizing lunar and planetary research. In the meantime the LDEP program within SMD appears to be doing an admirable job of finding synergies between efforts to kick-start a lunar commercial services industry and solid peer-reviewed science investigations and payloads, while adhering to science priorities described in the 2013 planetary decadal survey.”

Next steps

“We have decided against taking an official position on NASA’s Artemis proposal at this time. It is still very early, and we do not think that the benefits of public opposition to an ill-defined and untested proposal outweigh the use of political capital, at least not yet. We are clearly opposed to the Pell Grant offset on principle, and we have serious concerns about the proposed transfer authority and the as-yet undefined scientific content of the proposed crewed Artemis lunar program. The House Appropriations Committee responsible for NASA is working toward a 7% increase for NSF and a 4% increase for NASA SMD in FY20, which is a reassuring sign of their continued strong support for space sciences.

We will, however, have the AAS public-policy staff informally present our concerns — Pell Grant offset, transfer authority, and lack of community consensus on the science program — to relevant Congressional and Executive Branch staff. A Congressional Hill visit by the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) Committee on May 10th preemptively delivered the core of this message, which was well received. If evolving circumstances require the AAS to take a strong public position for or against what NASA proposes or does, we will not hesitate to do so.”

The posted letter is signed by Megan Donahue, AAS President and Linda Spilker, DPS Chair.

The posting — Moon 2024? — is available at:

U.S. President Donald Trump holds up the Space Policy Directive – 1 after signing it, directing NASA to return to the Moon, alongside members of the Senate, Congress, NASA, and commercial space companies in the Roosevelt room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017.
Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Response of concern

Meanwhile, the AAS/DPS posting has stirred the ire of lunar scientist, Jack Burns at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Provided to Inside Outer Space, the Burns communique to Linda Spilker of DPS reads in full:

Dear Megan,

I am writing to express a bit on concern with respect to the letter sent out to the AAS regarding NASA’s new Artemis program.

First, you know that I am a long-time ‘lunatic’ so you are not surprised that I am excited to see NASA finally stepping up with an ambitious plan of new missions of exploration going first to the Moon and eventually to Mars.  There are exciting opportunities for science from the Moon, including a sample return from the South Pole Aitken basin and a low radio frequency lunar farside array to study the Dark Ages and Cosmic Dawn.  These were singled out in the Planetary Science Decadal Survey and in the NASA Astrophysics Roadmap, respectively.  So, it is fair to say that these lunar-based science concepts have been vetted by the planetary and astrophysics community, unlike what is implied at the end of the letter.

Second, I share the concern about any funds being taken from the Pell Grant program.  But, this is not NASA’s plan nor that which Congress is likely to follow but rather a proposal from the White House.  Administrator Bridenstine made it clear it is Congress’ job to appropriate the funds from whatever source they choose.  So, the Pell grant issue is a red herring in my opinion being used by some to bash the accelerated lunar program.

Third, there has been a misunderstanding about the authority that the Administrator is seeking for transferring funds.  He has stated several times, including in a Congressional hearing last week, that he is seeking authority to transfer funds only within the lunar program not between directorates as is implied below.  He has stated many times, including at the Space Astrophysics Landscape for the 2020’s workshop held in DC last month, that NASA will NOT cannibalize science to pay for the lunar program.  In fact, he has proposed the opposite – to increase funding for lunar and related science.  I certainly do understand the concern about other proposed cuts in the President’s budget for WFIRST and for some Earth Science programs.  But, the Congress has the final authority to weigh in on these priorities.

Finally, I hope that the astronomy community is not sending out indirectly a message that it is prepared to oppose the human exploration program as some have done in the past out of fear for our telescopes.  Because history shows just the opposite has been true.  When the human program has been healthy, NASA science and the Agency has been healthy as well.  This added attention to a bold initiative tends to energize the American public and the Congress giving NASA more positive attention.  Our community tends to win under these circumstances.

So, I urge caution in how the AAS proceeds.  Let Congress fully weigh in and in the process let’s advocate, as we’ve done in the past, for a balanced program of human and scientific exploration.  It is unwise to divide our support for NASA between science and human exploration.

Also, I recommend that you meet with and talk directly with Administrator Bridenstine about these issues so you can better assess for yourself the relative risks.  It has been a tradition for the AAS President to meet with the Administrator regularly.

Best wishes,



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