Sun 22 September 2019

Lindsay McKenzie reports from Washington on how NASA is being pressured by the President to work to his short-term political timescale

American astronauts will set foot on the moon in the next five years “by any means necessary” the Trump administration has declared.

Speaking at a meeting of the National Space Council at the end of March, U.S. vice president Mike Pence said that he would do whatever it takes to ensure there is a lunar landing before the end of 2024.

Sending astronauts back to the moon is driven more by politics than anything else.

The announcement has divided space policy experts and scientists. While some applaud the ambition and the potential for new discovery, others ask whether such a mission is feasible without substantial additional funding for NASA – an agency already under pressure to become leaner and more efficient.

NASA engineers have been working on technology that could take astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit to the moon, and beyond, for over a decade. But the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft are years behind schedule and billions of dollars overbudget. NASA officials have suggested a moon landing would be possible by 2028. But Pence described this timeline as “just not good enough.”

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Urgency is needed to ensure the U.S. does not fall behind its historical space race rival Russia and newer competition from China, said Pence. “We’re also racing against our worst enemy,” he said: “Complacency.”

Fifty Years on from the Moon Landing

This summer will be the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, when Neil Armstrong become the first man on the moon. But it has been decades since the last manned lunar mission in 1972. In recent years, NASA has largely focused on unmanned missions, which are widely considered to be safer and cheaper.

“Sending astronauts back to the moon is driven more by politics than anything else,” said David Paige, professor of planetary science at the University of California, Los Angeles. “That’s the way it was in the 1960’s, and it’s basically the same story today.”

A lunar mission could, however, be very beneficial, said Paige. “We know a lot more about the moon than we did back in the Apollo era, and there are many unexplored areas, particularly near the poles,” he said. “If astronauts go to the lunar polar regions, they might be able to study the moon’s ice deposits, which would be very exciting.”

It is “pretty typical” for presidents to want to make “a big splashy statement in space,” said Wendy Whitman, associate professor of political science at Cameron University in Oklahoma. “Saying we’re going to return to the moon is a fairly non-political move and presidents aren’t usually blamed when it doesn’t happen,” she said.

President Donald Trump, center, holds a NASA flight jacket presented to him by NASA Astronaut Office Chief Chris Cassidy, blue jacket left, after signing the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017.

A 2024 moon landing would be a boon for Trump, who may then be at the tail end of a second presidential term, said Whitman. But five years is not a long time in space development. “The problem is that, even with unlimited resources, which NASA is unlikely to get, developing, building and testing new technologies takes time,” she said.

One way to speed up development would be to work with private companies like SpaceX, said Whitman. NASA administrator Jim Brindenstone has floated the possibility of using a privately developed rocket like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to do the job of SLS, which would be significantly faster and cheaper. This proposal has, however, proved unpopular with politicians who represent the states where the SLS is being designed and built, said Whitman. 

“This all leaves NASA between a rock and a hard place: they have to do a job with an expectation of no new money and they cannot switch to a potentially cheaper and faster alternative,” said Whitman.

The five-year goal may be a stretch, but Philip Metzger, a planetary scientist with the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida, believes it is “the right goal for NASA.”

Urgency is needed to ensure the U.S. does not fall behind its historical space race rival Russia and newer competition from China, said Pence

“I think working on the surface of the moon should be NASA’s number one priority,” said Metzger. “We need to learn how to work with resource beyond Earth: mining, manufacturing, and construction. We can’t do that unless we land somewhere and start working with the materials there.”

The moon is the logical place to go to do this, said Metzger. “It’s near enough to Earth that we can afford it, the radio communication time delay is short enough that we can operate robots there, and it has enough similarity to the rigors of Mars that we can build the capabilities to eventually live on Mars,” he said.

“Shutting down the Apollo program 47 years ago was a step backward,” said Metzger. “Getting back to the surface of another world is a step forward again.” 

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