On Tuesday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson made the case to lawmakers on Capitol Hill to approve the agency's $27.2 billion request for the upcoming budget year.
The budget request includes more than $8 billion for the Artemis program to eventually send astronauts to the moon.
"If the resources are there for us, then we're going to have this continuing program of going back to the moon," Nelson told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Tuesday. "This time to learn to live to work, to invent create for the purpose of going further go into Mars," Nelson said.
Artemis I, which did not have a crew, was sent to the moon last November. Artemis II, with four astronauts, is expected to launch in 2024 and travel around the far side of the moon.
Nelson said adequate funding for the agency was necessary to compete with China to get to the Moon's South Pole.
"I would not want to see them get there first and then claim, 'This is our territory in the South Pole; you stay out.' We go as an international mission. We go with international astronauts. We go with international participants in our scientific instruments," he said.
But Republicans on the committee pressed NASA on some budget items, including money toward diversity efforts.
"Looking at this year's budget request, I see things like $22 million for the 'Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity,' which has little to do with what you have called a space race between the free world and China," said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. "If we show up second at the Shackleton Crater, I highly doubt the ... Chinese Communist Party will care much about how we've advanced an equity action plan."
Democrats on the committee advocated for a multi-year budget authorization bill for NASA.
"It should be clear to every member of Congress we cannot operate our science agencies on the cheap, and we shouldn't operate them without clear multi-year direction," said Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.
"You get into the negotiation between the House and the Senate, and then you all can't agree on this, and you have to accept what they want. But that's not the comprehensive approach," Nelson said. "I think what you've said, a five-year authorization bill would be very, very well received in the aerospace community."