The Trump administration has announced it plans to put Americans on the moon no later than 2024—four years earlier than NASA had originally planned.
“Make no mistake about it, we're in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s—and the stakes are even higher,” Vice Pres. Mike Pence said at a meeting of the National Space Council in Alabama on Tuesday.
Pence mentioned China's Chang'e 4 mission, which landed a robotic probe on the far side of the moon in January. The mission “revealed [China's] ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s pre-eminent spacefaring nation,” Pence said.
At least one expert disagrees that such a space race exists. “If the United States is racing to return to the moon, it is racing against itself, not China,” Gregory Kulacki, a space analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts, told The Daily Beast.
The last American mission to the moon was NASA’s Apollo 17 in 1972. Since then, all moon exploration has been the exclusive purview of unmanned probes.
Beijing’s space agency has yet to formally announce a manned moon mission, but experts believe Chang’e-4’s successful mission laid the groundwork for the country sending astronauts to the moon. No public indication from Beijing has prompted the administration to accelerate its moon plan.
It’s a totally feasible—if potentially expensive—project. But the administration’s motives seem suspect.
Joan Johnson-Freese, a space expert at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, told The Daily Beast the administration might be pushing for a faster moon mission for political purposes, saying, the administration is “deflecting attention from not getting a Space Force as a new military service.” Johnson-Freese stressed that her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College or the military.
For more than year, President Trump pushed for a “Space Force”—a new military branch for space—after coming up with the idea on the fly during a campaign rally. But Congress balked at the cost and redundancy, and instead approved a new “space command” bureaucracy within the Air Force.
A lunar mission has been on the administration’s radar since before Trump took office in January 2017. In the months before the inauguration, Trump’s transition team meticulously queried NASA about the possibility of mining the moon for valuable minerals, according to documents that Vice obtained.
Once Trump took office and installed former congressman Jim Bridenstine as NASA administrator, the space agency essentially put on hold a manned mission to Mars—a priority of the Obama administration—in favor of going to the moon again.
The space agency started this by prioritizing the construction of a new, moon-orbiting space station. The first components for the Lunar Gateway station could be in place in 2022.
Under NASA’s original moon plan under the Trump administration, a manned mission to the moon would have followed around 2028. Nimble little rockets called “space tugs” would have maneuvered landers—vehicles for touching down on a planet—into the moon’s orbit. Astronauts camping out on the Gateway station would have rendezvoused with the landers for their ride to lunar surface.
As recently as February, NASA considered it ambitious to put boots on the moon by 2028. “This is going to be fast,” said William Gerstenmaier, a NASA associate administrator, said of the 2028 deadline.
Besides being years too late for the White House’s 2024 deadline, the $2.7-billion Lunar Gateway, a repurposed asteroid-defense platform—yes, you read that right—might be a poor launch pad for transporting astronauts the lunar surface. Most of the time, it’d simply be too far away from the moon to be very practical.
Matt Siegler, former NASA scientist now with the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, told The Daily Beast the space agency simply could send astronauts directly from Earth to the lunar surface the way it did during the first moon missions: Stick a crew capsule on top of a lander, plug them both into a heavyweight rocket, and point them at the moon and light a match. But even that would cost around $20 billion, Siegler said.
That $20 billion is roughly as much as NASA plans to spend this year; Bridenstine’s requested 2020 budget is actually $500 million less than what NASA got for 2019.
Which means that if the administration wants to seriously put a man on the moon, it should put its money where its mouth is.
“A moon return on any timescale is expensive, but one this quickly would dominate the NASA budget, which this administration plans to cut next year,” Chris Impey, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, told The Daily Beast.
Plus, NASA is missing many of the key bits of hardware for a moon landing.
While NASA is about to get two new crew capsules courtesy of SpaceX and Boeing, the agency hasn’t even begun to develop the lander that would carry astronauts from the moon’s orbit to the lunar surface.
Then there’s the powerful, moon-capable Space Launch System heavy rocket that was supposed to be ready for testing in 2017. Boeing ran into trouble building it. NASA delayed testing to 2020 and, earlier this year, proposed cutting back on the program’s funding.
Oh, and don’t forget space suits. NASA hasn’t made a moon suit in generations.
Yes, NASA could put people on the moon by 2024. But that would mean spending a lot of money very quickly and potentially rendering redundant a separate effort to develop a moon-orbiting station.
And for what? If the administration can articulate a clear rationale for the mission and stick with it, Americans might again roam the lunar surface in just four years’ time. But “minerals,” “beat China,” and “Space Force!” might not be the best rallying cries.
“Contemporary U.S. political leaders no longer seem to appreciate the necessity of reaching and maintaining commitments to long-term goals determined by objective policy processes and implemented by political consensus,” Kulacki explained.
“NASA, like so many agencies and departments, is a hostage to partisan politics.”