It’s often said that the wheels of government turn slowly, and perhaps nowhere is this on better display than at NASA. While it seems like every week we hear about another commercial space launch or venture, projects helmed by the national space agency are often mired by budget cuts and indecisiveness from above. It takes a lot of political will to earmark tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars on a project that could take decades to complete, and not every occupant of the White House has been willing to stake their reputation on such bold ambitions.
In 2019, when Vice President Mike Pence told a cheering crowd at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center that the White House was officially tasking NASA with returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, everyone knew it was an ambitious timeline. But not one without precedent. The speech was a not-so-subtle allusion to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 declaration at Rice University that America would safely land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade, a challenge NASA was able to meet with fewer than six months to spare.
Unfortunately, a rousing speech will only get you so far. Without a significant boost to the agency’s budget, progress on the new Artemis lunar program was limited. To further complicate matters, less than a year after Pence took the stage in Huntsville, there was a new President in the White House. While there was initially some concern that the Biden administration would axe the Artemis program as part of a general “house cleaning”, it was allowed to continue under newly installed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The original 2024 deadline, at this point all but unattainable due to delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, has quietly been abandoned.
So where are we now? Is NASA in 2022 any closer to returning humanity to the Moon than they were in 2020 or even 2010? While it might not seem like it from an outsider’s perspective, a close look at some of the recent Artemis program milestones and developments show that the agency is at least moving in the right direction.