The Trump administration announced an ambitious goal in March: It wants to send American astronauts back to the moon in just five years — four years earlier than the previous target of 2028.
Last week, the White House sought to add $1.6 billion to NASA’s budget for next year as a “down payment” for this accelerated push for the moon.
And yet, the administrator of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, has not talked directly with President Donald J. Trump in the past couple of months about this goal.
“Not on the 2024 agenda,” Mr. Bridenstine said in an interview last week when asked if they had discussed the new plan. “I’ve talked to the vice president.”
Although Mr. Trump signed a directive in December 2017 that set the moon as the next destination for NASA astronauts, he has barely talked about the moon publicly. At rallies, he has been more likely to tout the Space Force, a proposed new military branch.
The apparently scant attention by the president is just one hurdle that Mr. Bridenstine and NASA are facing in trying to send people back to the moon — in a program they’ve named Artemis — for the first time since 1972.
Reaction in Congress has been lukewarm, especially among Democrats who may be reluctant to give billions of dollars to NASA when the Trump administration is seeking deep cuts in scientific research.
In addition, the history of space projects, big and small, is that they are almost never completed on time.
These factors seem to make it unlikely that astronauts will set foot on the moon during a second term of Mr. Trump’s presidency, if he is re-elected. Still, pursuing this goal could help speed the status quo at NASA. That might make it more likely the agency could make the original 2028 timetable, or even move it up a year or two.
Vice President Mike Pence has been leading the administration’s space policy. As chairman of the National Space Council, which coordinates off-planet issues among federal agencies, he has spoken of the moon mission in sweeping and urgent language.
“Failure to achieve our goal to return an American astronaut to the moon in the next five years is not an option,” he said in March when announcing the 2024 deadline
This was a swerve for NASA.
In mid-March, the Trump administration’s budget request to Congress still followed a timeline for reaching the moon in 2028.
But a week later, Mr. Pence told Mr. Bridenstine that the White House wanted to accelerate the moon landing to 2024, setting off a rush of revisions, Mr. Bridenstine said.
NASA officials have not disclosed the total budget for a 2024 moon landing, only that they expect the cost to rise for at least the next couple years.
“When we start building hardware, it becomes more expensive,” Mr. Bridenstine said. “In the next year, it’s going to be more. The year after, it’s going to be more, and then it should start coming down.”
Few members of Congress, Republicans or Democrats, offered enthusiastic endorsements.
“We need to know how much this program is going to cost,” Rep. Kendra Horn, an Oklahoma Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee on space and aeronautics, said in an interview.
Mr. Bridenstine did not promise that members of Congress would be given that information this year. He said the full costs would be part of the 2021 budget request, which would likely be submitted in February.
Ms. Horn said she would also want assurances that additional money for the moon program would not be diverted from other parts of NASA like climate change research and robotic missions.
Mr. Bridenstine responded, “I don’t have control over that at this point,” but added, “I would make the argument it shouldn’t.”
The administration has proposed taking the $1.6 billion needed for 2020 from a surplus from the Pell grant program, which provides financial help to low-income college students, an approach that some House Democrats have already objected to.
Mr. Bridenstine, who during a news conference last week said he had not been told where the $1.6 billion for NASA would come from, declined to comment two days later about the Pell grant money. “Where the money comes from, that’s way above the NASA administrator’s pay grade,” he said.
If NASA does not receive the added money, it would probably slow back down to the 2028 schedule, Mr. Bridenstine said.
Democrats in the House of Representatives have their own ideas about what kind of money NASA needs. A preliminary 2020 budget would give NASA $22.3 billion — $820 million more than it is getting this year and almost $1.3 billion more than the Trump administration originally asked for. But most of the additional money would go to NASA’s science programs.
Other uncertainties in costs arise because, unlike the Apollo program in the 1960s, where NASA designed the spacecraft, NASA wants to hire a commercial company for Artemis trips to the lunar surface. That’s similar to how it has hired SpaceX and Boeing to take astronauts to the International Space Station.
An earlier program, to take cargo to the space station, was a resounding success. NASA now relies on companies like SpaceX to launch supplies at a lower cost.
As the moon mission is currently envisioned, NASA astronauts would launch aboard the Space Launch System, a giant rocket that NASA is currently developing, en route to an outpost in orbit high above the moon. From there, the astronauts would take a spacecraft to low lunar orbit and then to the surface.
Critics say that the traditional NASA approach, used for the Space Launch System and the Orion capsule astronauts will travel in, is too slow and expensive. But the approach of hiring private companies for space station transportation, while more economical, is also years behind schedule. SpaceX and Boeing may not be able to launch astronauts this year either.
NASA announced on Thursday that it would distribute $45.5 million to 11 companies to study and begin development of prototypes of pieces of a lander to take astronauts to the moon’s surface. The companies include Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and Blue Origin, the rocket company started by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.
This month, Mr. Bezos touted Blue Moon, a lander that Blue Origin has been working on for the past three years.
William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said NASA hoped that by the end of the year it would sign contracts to build the lander — a speedy pace for a big government program.
The hope, he said, is for the commercial sector to come up with solutions that can meet the tight 2024 schedule.
Although he has not spoken to Mr. Trump about the revised moon program, Mr. Bridenstine said the president was keen on this goal. “It was by his direction that we do this,” he said.
Yet to be seen is whether this is a political priority the administration will make the effort to follow through on. Last year, the administration gave NASA a different, big task to accomplish by the end of 2024: ending direct federal financing of the International Space Station, one of NASA’s largest yearly expenditures. That proposal ran into strong opposition from Ted Cruz, a Republican Senator from Texas.
Since then, NASA has made no significant announcements about how it plans to shift to commercial space stations that do not yet exist.