Since March, when Vice President Mike Pence suddenly announced a program to get humans to the surface of the moon by 2024, NASA has been scrambling to pull off what many think is a near-impossible feat.

But the agency took a significant step toward that goal Thursday, awarding a contract to a company to build the first element of a small space station that the space agency wants to put in orbit around the moon.

Maxar, a company based in Colorado, will build what’s known as the power and propulsion element of the orbiting outpost, known as the Gateway.

Instead of going directly to the surface of the moon, as was done during the Apollo program, NASA wants to build the Gateway for its lunar missions, which it has dubbed Artemis. In addition to the power and propulsion element, the Gateway could have a habitat for astronauts; vehicles would be able to astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

To make the 2024 deadline, the White House increased its budget request by $1.6 billion. But it has not said how much the entire program would cost.

That has made some in Congress sceptical.

“We’re still left with a lot of unanswered questions about how we get to 2024,” Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., chairwoman of a subcommittee that oversees NASA, said in a recent interview.

She and other Democrats criticised the administration for a plan to take the $1.6 billion from the Pell Grant program, which helps make college more affordable.

“We’re going to need more rocket scientists, not fewer,” she said. “Pell Grants is an important program.”

The White House has said the Pell Grant program is overfunded. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said that no money would be taken from other NASA programs to fund Artemis.

Bridenstine has said NASA’s return to the moon has been thwarted not by technical reasons but because of “political risks.”

© The Washington Post 2019