It was supposed to be a crowning achievement of Donald Trump’s second term. By 2024, the Trump administration aimed to put astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than a half-century, cementing a long-term American presence on the lunar surface for science and mining—and as a waystation for a future mission to Mars.
But then Trump lost his re-election bid. Now NASA’s Artemis program is in limbo. The 2024 goal was always ambitious and arbitrary, tied as it was to Trump’s dream of a second term. A year into a global pandemic with all the economic stress that entails, landing astronauts on the moon in just four years is looking increasingly far-fetched.
Observers of President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for NASA say Artemis isn’t going to be Biden’s top space priority. Space-based climate science, which withered under Trump, is likely to take precedent over a moon landing. Biden’s transition team didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“I think the Biden administration is very likely to continue the Artemis program, but relax the 2024 target date for the first crewed mission to the lunar surface,” John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Biden is likely to give more funds to NASA's role in understanding and dealing with climate change, so a slower pace for Artemis seems prudent.”
For decades, the moon and Mars have taken turns as the top space-exploration priorities of successive presidential administrations. George W. Bush wanted to return to the moon. Barack Obama wanted to skip the moon and head straight to Mars. Both the Bush and Obama administrations funded bits and pieces of technology applicable to either mission, including the Orion space capsule and the Space Launch System heavy rocket.
The moon’s vast mineral reserves were a temptation the Trump administration couldn’t resist. In late 2016, Trump’s transition team meticulously queried NASA about the possibility of mining the moon for tantalum and other rare metals. Trump’s plan, early on, was to land on the moon no later than 2028.
But later in his term, Trump developed an at-times odd fixation on space. The president successfully pushed for the creation of a military Space Force over the objections of his then-defense secretary, James Mattis.
Space Force began as a joke Trump liked to tell at rallies. “We’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space, and I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force,” Trump said at a 2018 rally in San Diego. “I was not really serious, and then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we'll have to do that.’”
Space Force caught on fast with Trump's base. Alongside “build the wall,” “Space Force” became a popular chant at Trump’s many rallies. The Trump campaign peddled hats and T-shirts with fantastical Space Force logos, including one that was a clear ripoff of NASA’s own logo.
Apparently riding high on the Republican base’s love of Space Force, in March 2019, the Trump administration surprised the space community by announcing a new 2024 deadline for putting NASA boots on the moon.
A few weeks later, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross suggested a financial motivation for the new deadline. Noting that several other countries have launched moon probes in recent years, and both China and Russia are planning manned lunar missions, Ross urged NASA to plant American flags on lucrative lunar mineral deposits—ASAP. “As more countries land on the moon, we risk a Wild West situation without clarification of ownership rights,” Ross said.
NASA wasted no time naming 18 Artemis astronauts, including several women. But the 2024 deadline was never really rooted in the cold, hard realities of space exploration. Spacecraft are expensive. And NASA hasn’t landed human beings on an extraterrestrial body in decades. The agency doesn’t even have a modern moonsuit.
It doesn’t help that NASA is determined to fold Artemis into a future Mars mission, by building a so-called “gateway” space station that can pull double duty as both a staging base for lunar explorers and a waystation for astronauts heading out to Mars some time in, say, the 2030s. A simpler alternative plan could involve astronauts traveling directly from Earth to the moon, like their predecessors did in the 1960s and ’70s.
But NASA just doesn’t do things simply anymore. Two complex parts of the Artemis system—the Space Launch System rockets and a lunar lander—have proved particularly vexing. The rockets are based on hardware left over from the Space Shuttle program, which ended in 2011. They have to be refurbished, repackaged and retested—an effort that could end up costing $17 billion.
NASA had hoped to launch the SLS rocket on a trial basis back in 2017. It didn’t. The new goal is to light up the giant booster before the end of 2021. Even if SLS works, there’s nothing for it to haul quite yet. The Orion capsule, which carries the crew, is unfinished. The lander that will transfer astronauts to the lunar surface still exists largely on paper.
The space agency has already paid Lockheed Martin nearly $3 billion to build three Orion capsules. Ideally, one of them would be ready to fly atop SLS late next year.
But in ground testing back in November, engineers found a flaw in one of the capsule’s back-up power and data systems. To avoid further delays, NASA plans to conduct the first unmanned test-launch of Orion with the broken component still aboard. “NASA has confidence in the health of the overall power and data system,” the agency stated.
Fixing the flaw could ultimately delay and add cost to the overall Artemis program, further incentivizing the Biden administration to simply bump the moon deadline to the right by a few years.
NASA plans to settle on two lander designs this spring. But actually building and testing the landers could cost billions of dollars. And Congress has been in no hurry to actually provide the funding. NASA asked for $3.4 billion for lander work in 2021. Lawmakers approved only $1 billion.
Money is likely to get tighter. “COVID and the related recession mean federal budgets will be tight, with many competing priorities, and if Republicans keep the Senate, [majority leader Sen. Mitch] McConnell is not likely to be generous,” David Burbach, a space expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, told The Daily Beast. “Democrats support Artemis overall, but it's lukewarm support. A mid-2020s landing requires significant NASA funding increases and that seems unlikely.”
Biden hasn’t yet named a nominee to succeed Trump’s NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine. Whoever it ends up being “will give NASA more of a priority for climate science,” Chris Impey, a University of Arizona astronomer, told The Daily Beast.
For all its hiccups, the Artemis program enjoys broad, if tepid, support in Congress. After decades of work costing billions of dollars, NASA’s moonshot has political and industrial momentum. “NASA enjoys strong bipartisan support for the Artemis program, and for NASA’s science, aeronautics and space technology programs, and we look forward to continuing America's exploration plans on behalf of the next administration,” a NASA spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to put Americans on the dusty lunar surface in just four years’ time. A 2024 landing was unlikely under the outgoing president. It’s even less likely under the incoming one. And Joe Biden, in these observers’ eyes, seems perfectly fine with that. “It's clear a moon landing won't happen on his watch,” Impey said.