NASA’s Back to the Moon Program Has A New Name but Will it Get Funding?
onday night, on May 13th, President Trump sent one of his many tweets, this time containing much anticipated news for NASA’s return to the moon by 2024 program.
“Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars. I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!”
For some weeks, Congress has been awaiting a supplemental budget request to help accelerate the date of the next moon landing from 2028 to 2024.
At least one press report suggested that NASA had requested an extra $8 billion for the fiscal year 2020.
While not explicitly denying the story, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated that the amount would be no where near that figure.
And so, he was proven correct.
Incidentally, the NASA return to the moon program now has a new name.
Henceforth it will be referred to as Project Artemis, named after the Greek goddess of the moon and the sister of Apollo.
The name is well in keeping with the space agency’s commitment to diversity and the fact that one of the first Americans to go back to the moon will be a woman.
One of the flies in the ointment concerns where the extra funding is coming from.
The Trump administration is going to tap surplus, unspent money from the Pell Grant program for Artemis.
The money will also be used to fund other programs such as the Special Olympics, the cleanup of the Great Lakes and the restoration of the Everglades.
The problem is that Pell Grants are second only to Social Security and Medicare on the list of sacred cows in the federal budget.
Pell Grants provides funding for poor children to attend college, considered a worthy goal by most members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
The proposal does not touch money being spent for students, but rather the surplus that has built up over the years as the number of qualified students has tended to be fewer than the money available. As the AP explained:
“Enrollment in the program has declined since 2011, leading to a surplus of nearly $9 billion, according to the budget office. The administration had originally proposed using $2 billion of that surplus to fund other spending. The new request brings that total to $3.9 billion, which OMB described as similar to its request in the 2018 budget. The administration proposed a similar cancellation of unobligated Pell grant money for 2019, but later backed off the idea.”
The fact has not prevented misleading headlines from showing up in media accounts, such as the one for the AP story that stated, “Trump targets Pell Grant money for NASA’s budget boost.”
The truth is only revealed in the body of the story.
The Pell Grant angle has caused a series of hot takes on social media as well.
One by Eric Berger, a respected space reporter for Ars Technica, was typical:
“But it’s not just the money, that’s not really the point. The funding source is the real poison pill, and it may do lasting harm to NASA and human spaceflight. Why? Because the White House wants to raid the Pell Grant Reserve Fund. Yes, money for poor kids to go to college.”
Berger did not mention that the “Pell Grant Reserve Fund” is not going to poor kids to go to college.
The money going to students has not been touched and is fully funded.
The “Reserve Fund” is just sitting on the government books, not being spent.
When this fact was pointed out to Berger, he stated that perception trumps reality. Of course, the job of the responsible media is to debunk the perception and report the reality, not to confuse the two in hot takes.
Jim Bridenstine, who was once a member of Congress, may have a big selling job ahead of him, partly because of misleading headlines.
Will Congress, especially the Democratic House, focus on the reality and approve the extra funding? Or will it decide to use the media generated perception, grandstand, and attack a priority of President Trump’s in order to strike at a man many of them deeply loath and would see impeached?
The answer to that question may decide the future of the American space program and indeed on American leadership on the high frontier.