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Earth seen from above the Moon during Apollo 11. Photo: NASA

Fifty years after NASA first landed people on the Moon with its Apollo program, it's now aiming to do it again, but the storied space agency has a long way to go before it can get there.

Driving the news: Last week, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reassigned Bill Gerstenmaier, a beloved figure at the agency, from his role as the head of human exploration and operations.

  • Now NASA is conducting a nationwide search for its next head of human exploration and other positions that would supervise the key parts of the Artemis program aimed at getting people back to the Moon by 2024, as directed by the Trump administration.

What's happening: NASA is facing both political and technical headwinds.

  • One of the biggest challenges for NASA right now is getting its Space Launch System rocket flying in the coming year. The huge rocket, being built primarily by Boeing for NASA, is billions of dollars over budget and has been delayed for years, but all of the agency's future Moon plans depend on it. A recent report suggests the rocket's first flight could slip to as late as 2021.
  • NASA's Orion capsule — designed to bring people into orbit around the Moon — has also faced its own delays and cost overruns.
    • The agency also has big plans to build a small space station called the Gateway in orbit around the Moon by 2023. No part of the Gateway has been launched, but NASA has contracted Maxar to develop the power and propulsion element for it.
  • NASA is also asking private companies to develop concepts for lunar landers that could take people down to the surface of the Moon from the Gateway after the Orion docks.

What they're saying: Bridenstine says NASA will be able to rise to the technical challenge set forth by the administration. The political risks, however, are dicier.

  • "If it wasn't for the political risk, we would be on the Moon right now. In fact, we would probably be on Mars right now," Bridenstine said during a press call Monday that focused less on the Moon and more on Mars.
  • Bridenstine has said that it will likely take about $20 billion over the next 4 years to make Artemis a reality. It's unclear if Congress will get onboard for the mission, however.
  • “The program we have executed to return to exploration is in no way comparable to Apollo in intensity or commitment,” John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told Axios earlier this month.

Go deeper

Group of 20 bipartisan senators back $1.2T infrastructure framework

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) arrives for a meeting with Senate Budget Committee Democrats in the Mansfield Room at the U.S. Capitol building on June 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. The Majority Leader and Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee are meeting to discuss how to move forward with the Biden Administrations budget proposal. Photo: Samuel Corum / Getty Images

A group of 10 Democratic and 10 Republican senators (the "G20") tasked with negotiating an infrastructure deal with the White House has released a statement in support of a $1.2 trillion framework.

Why it matters: Details regarding the plan have not yet been released, but getting 10 Republicans on board means the bill could get the necessary 60 votes to pass.

DOJ drops criminal probe, civil lawsuit against John Bolton over Trump book

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Justice Department has closed its criminal investigation into whether President Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton disclosed classified information with his tell-all memoir, “The Room Where it Happened," according to a source with direct knowledge.

Why it matters: The move comes a year after the Trump administration tried to silence Bolton by suing him in federal court, claiming he breached his contract by failing to complete a pre-publication review for classified information. Prosecutors indicated they had reached a settlement with Bolton to drop the lawsuit in a filing on Wednesday.

Fed may raise rates sooner, as inflation is higher than expected

Feb chair Jerome Powell. Photo: Susan Walsh/Getty Images

The Federal Reserve kept rates unchanged at its latest policy meeting, but a shift in sentiment emerged as to how soon it should begin raising rates.

Why it matters: The Fed's rock-bottom rates policy and monthly asset purchases helped the U.S. markets avoid a meltdown during the COVID-19 crisis last year. But as the economy recovers, a chorus is growing for the Fed to at least consider a timeline for pulling back its support before things get overheated.