Trump’s NASA Pivot
by Marina Koren October 7, 2017 (theatlantic.com)
• Trump wants to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020, shifting the focus away from Obama’s Mars agenda.
• Trump wants to establish a lunar base, or an orbiting “cislunar” base, before heading to Mars.
• Mars proponents worry that we’ll get stuck on the Moon.
• India’s space program plans to visit the Moon next year.
• Both Russia and China plan to visit the Moon by the 2030’s.
• The European Space Agency envisions building a “moon village.”
• NASA wants to send the Lunar Rover to the back-side of the Moon.
• They all might be very surprised by what they find on the dark side of the Moon.
Rumors that the Trump administration was more interested in the moon than Mars began circulating days after the inauguration. Leaked memos published in February revealed the president’s advisers wanted NASA to send astronauts there by 2020, one part in a bigger plan to focus on activities near Earth rather than missions deeper in the solar system. Vice President Mike Pence spoke vaguely of a return to the moon in a speech in July. In September, the administration nominated a NASA chief who extolled the construction of lunar outposts. All signs pointed to a significant shift in the country’s Mars-focused space agenda of the last seven years.
This week, the Trump administration made it official.
“We will return NASA astronauts to the moon—not only to leave behind footprints and flags, but to build the foundation we need to send Americans to Mars and beyond,” Pence said Thursday at the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, an advisory body his administration recently revived.
The vice president’s comments marked a pivot from Barack Obama’s directive for a “Journey to Mars,” established in 2010, and harkens to the aspirations set forth by the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration had maintained that some kind of human activity in cislunar space—the region between the Earth and the moon—was necessary to test technology for a mission to Mars, but the efforts would amount to a pit stop, not a destination. While Pence did not provide details on what kind of “foundation” Americans would build on the moon, the new direction was clear: Americans should be spending more time in their cosmic backyard before flying off into the solar system.
“It’s a 180-degree shift from no moon to moon first,” said John Logsdon, a space-policy expert and former director of the Space-Policy Institute at George Washington University.
The announcement is obviously good news for space-transportation companies and lunar researchers lamenting the country’s 45-year absence from the moon. For those in the Mars camp, many of whom aim for a human mission to the planet by 2033, the news puts their ambitions on shakier ground.
“Most of the people who are Mars-centered worry that we’ll get stuck on the moon.”
The administration’s push for a return to the moon may be unambiguous now, but plenty of questions remain, ranging from the basic, like when and how, to the intriguing, like the role commercial spaceflight companies might play. NASA also wouldn’t be starting from scratch. The space agency has spent the last decade building the Space-Launch System and Orion, a rocket and spacecraft intended to carry people into deep space but also to build a cislunar way station called the Deep-Space Gateway. NASA planned to use the Deep-Space Gateway as a place for astronauts to prep for deep-space journeys, but the new shift could see the station being used for lunar landings.
Both time-tested contractors and growing commercial companies will be eager to work on potential lunar activities. Boeing is currently developing a capsule that would ferry people into low-Earth orbit, and SpaceX said its proposed mega-rocket, which is mostly intended to fulfill Elon Musk’s Sim City-esque ambitions for Mars, could contribute to travel to the moon. Musk, well aware of the political benefits of it, leaned heavily into lunar ambitions. “It’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now,” he said recently. “What the hell’s going on?”
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