The White House's next NASA budget is expected to propose government-industry moon initiatives and ending space-station funding by the middle of next decade, according to people familiar with the details.
The 2019 spending proposal will lay out the first specifics of such lunar exploration -- previously embraced by President Donald Trump -- while calling for a modest $200 million program down payment, these people said. If all goes well, it projects manned missions to the moon by the early 2020s, according to internal government documents and people tracking the issue.
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For the longer term, the Trump administration seeks to free up money for the moon effort by ending federal spending on the international space station by the end of 2024. Studies by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Boeing Co., prime contractor for the station, highlight escalating costs to maintain the 1990s--vintage platform, which already costs the agency more than $3 billion a year.
Without new money for exploration, NASA would be hard pressed to create spacecraft able to ultimately establish human habitats on the lunar surface, as anticipated by White House officials.
Certain details of the budget request still could change before the official release next month. Some aerospace companies and industry groups with advance information already are gearing up to lobby for a longer space-station phaseout.
President Barack Obama committed the U.S. to at least 2024, and kept the door open to maintaining operations through 2028. The orbiting laboratory has been used for experiments on subjects ranging from drug and electronics manufacturing to the health effects of prolonged time in space.
A rigid 2024 deadline could prompt concerns among the other partner countries in the station. Some haven't yet decided whether they support an extension.
The spending proposal also could spark opposition from U.S. lawmakers who have been demanding a detailed blueprint for shifting station function to private entities. NASA missed a December deadline to submit one.
The proposed budget is expected to earmark some $100 million in seed money for what NASA envisions will be private spaceships, corporate research and other nongovernmental activities in low-earth orbit. That is a tiny sliver of NASA's current $19.7 billion budget, but it is intended to demonstrate the White House's commitment to commercial space endeavors.
One federal budget document indicates NASA hopes to enhance U.S. leadership by combining robotic and manned technologies "involving commercial and international participation."
The proposal also paves the way for competition on some NASA launches between private boosters and the agency's own, ultra-heavy-lift SLS rocket.
Overall, people familiar with the budget say, the plan underscores the White House's resolve to advance both robotic and manned exploration of the moon, as a step toward to blasting humans deeper into the solar system. Vice President Mike Pence, who heads space policy as chairman of the White House Space Council, has vowed to boost U.S. space leadership partly by encouraging private industry.
One complication is that partisan clashes have kept Congress from confirming a permanent NASA administrator. Many career agency engineers and managers favor extending station operations to 2028, so White House space and budget officials drafted parts of the proposal over their objections, according to one person familiar with the debate.
The Obama White House originally championed using commercial capsules and privately operated manned spacecraft to service the station, which circles roughly 250 miles above the Earth. Now, White House and NASA leaders want to expand the same contracting principles -- with less agency oversight than traditionally -- in developing landers and spacecraft to operate on or near the moon.
Even some supporters of the approach say NASA and industry need to agree on a clear-cut path to deploy alternate platforms. Essential research "can be done much more effectively on a privately owned and operated" platform, argues industry consultant Charles Miller, a former NASA official who advised Mr. Trump's team on space issues after the 2016 election.
If commercial entities spearhead lunar missions, "you could have humans on the moon in five to seven years," Mr. Miller said in an interview Thursday. He hadn't obtained NASA's budget details.
Others worry about prematurely cutting off station funding. "Let's not pick a date until we have some reasonable criteria that gives us confidence" private enterprise is ready to take over essential functions, said former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria. That would be the only way the U.S. and its commercial partners will "have a fighting chance of making this work," he said
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Lopez-Alegria also said unilaterally announcing an end to station funding threatens to "put a dagger in the back of a shining example of cooperation" between the U.S. and Russia.
Separate from the impending budget debate, there is strong bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for focusing on moon missions and speeding up timelines for crewed exploration.
"We have got to move forward to recapture the pre-eminence" the U.S. previously had in space, Rep. Ted Yoho, a Florida Republican, said in an interview earlier this week. China threatens to surge ahead because "they've got the cash to do it."
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(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 25, 2018 11:44 ET (16:44 GMT)
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