Bill introduced to redirect NASA to Moon, establish sustained presence
A bill that would direct NASA to return to the Moon and establish a sustained presence was referred to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on Feb. 3, 2017.
Sponsored by Rep. Bill Posey, R-Fla., HR 870 would direct NASA to plan to return to the Moon and develop a sustained presence on the Moon. It has two co-sponsors, Rep. Sheila Jackson, D-Texas, and Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas.
Under the current directive, NASA is working toward sending astronauts to cislunar space by the mid-2020s to visit a yet-to-be redirected small asteroid boulder, and to Mars orbit by the mid-2030s.
SpaceFlight Insider reached out to NASA for comment on the new legislation.
“It would be inappropriate for NASA to discuss any pending legislation until it passes both houses and is signed by the President,” said Bob Jacobs, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for communications.
Several bills over the years have been proposed to direct NASA to send astronauts to Earth’s nearest neighbor, one of which was proposed only last Spring. All of them have gone nowhere. It is possible HR 870 is destined for the same place as the other “Moon first” bills.
The difference this year, as opposed to the last seven, is there is a new presidential administration in the White House and it is of the same party that controls Congress – Republican. The Trump administration, however, has given few clues as to its intentions for the U.S. space program.
The first indication of any new space policy from the executive branch will likely come from the administration’s first omnibus budget proposal. As Space News reported on Jan. 26, the consensus in Washington is that the end of March would be the earliest such a budget would be produced.
In addition to HR 870, according to Space News, a new NASA authorization bill is in the works with a goal of having something concrete by the end of February 2017.
In 2016, before the end of the 114th Congress, the Senate had passed the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act. It would have essentially reaffirmed the current NASA plan for another year while the Trump administration formulates its goals for the space agency. There wasn’t enough time for the House to pass the bill before the close of that Congress. Any legislation that doesn’t pass in one Congress must start over in the next.
According to Space Policy Online, a similar bill is being readied by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Babin. Its goal, like last year’s attempt, would be to achieve some form of continuity as to avoid a drastic change in direction, similar to what happened in 2010 when then-President Obama canceled the Constellation program in favor of a flexible path. Smith said that the first space-related hearing the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology would likely be in mid-February and look at NASA’s past, present, and future.
“The [House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology] will continue to ensure that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration pursues a balanced portfolio of programs reinvigorated with bold exploration objectives,” the committee said in a press release about its priorities for the 115th Congress. “Building upon the progress made towards development of the Space Launch System, Orion, and the commercial crew and cargo programs, the committee will ensure NASA stays the course and leads the world in not only space exploration, but also space science.”
Vision for Space Exploration
Over the years, Republicans have tended to support the idea of a return to the Moon with the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars. Between 2004 and 2010, NASA was directed by the George W. Bush administration to do just that.
The Vision for Space Exploration, as it was called, gave birth to the Constellation program which would have seen the development of a medium-class launcher and a super-heavy lifter called Ares I and Ares V, respectively. Both of them would have been Space Shuttle-derived. Additionally, a capsule called Orion and a lunar lander called Altair was to also have been developed under the program.
Along with completing the construction of the International Space Station by 2010, NASA was directed to retire the Space Shuttle program. In addition, Bush set a goal to develop what would become known as Orion by 2014.
This new vehicle would have been capable of both ferrying astronauts to the ISS and back, but also to carry out deep space exploration, such as a return to the Moon and on to Mars. Furthermore, a return to the lunar surface was planned for 2020.
The program was expected to start slowly as the Space Shuttle program was ended, after which, with the funding from the Shuttle Program freed up, more investment into Constellation would have been given.
When the Obama administration took over in January 2009, it formed what became known as the Augustine Commission to review the human spaceflight plans for the U.S. It found the Constellation program to be behind schedule, over budget and underfunded, and would not meet the goals set forth by President Bush under the current conditions.
In May 2009, the committee made three recommendations for deep space exploration. The first, called “Mars first”, would have seen a crewed landing on Mars. The second, called “Moon first”, would be similar to the Constellation program with a return to the Moon focused on the development of capabilities to enable a Mars landing.
The last option was a flexible path option that would take crewed missions to different locations in the Solar System as the budget allowed. Among the options were lunar orbit, Lagrange points, asteroids, the moons of Mars, and then either a return to the Lunar surface or a mission to the surface of Mars.
As a result of the commission, the Obama administration’s 2011 budget request, released on Feb. 1, 2010, effectively canceled Constellation in favor of a more flexible path. This path, however, did not include the Moon. In an April 2010 speech to employees at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Obama directed the agency to send a crew to an asteroid by 2025.
“By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth,” Obama said in the speech. “And I expect to be around to see it.”
That speech also called for the development of an advanced heavy-lift rocket and a new spacecraft designed for long journeys, among other things. This was essentially a rebirth of Ares V and Orion. While Orion would keep its name, Ares V would be reborn as the Space Launch System (SLS).
Congress, in the NASA authorization act of 2010, ordered the new rocket and spacecraft to be ready to fly by 2016, a deadline that would never come to be for a variety of reasons, including a lack of funding. Much like Constellation, the SLS and Orion are behind schedule and underfunded.
The Journey to Mars
The flexible path has been a moving target. President Obama had originally proposed a crewed mission to an asteroid in his 2010 proposal. Since then, it has morphed to a robotic mission to retrieve a small boulder from an asteroid, one about 13 feet (4 meters) or so in diameter, and redirect it to a stable orbit around the Moon called a “distant retrograde orbit”.
Once there, spacewalking astronauts would rendezvous with it using the Orion spacecraft and retrieve samples from it to return to Earth for study.
After that, NASA would focus on sending a crew to orbit the Red Planet by the 2030s.
Much progress has been made in the development of the rocket that would do the job of lifting equipment and astronauts out of Earth’s gravity well. While the SLS is years behind schedule, it is on track for its first uncrewed mission, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), with an Orion capsule in late 2018.
Orion itself is also well into development. The spacecraft had its first test flight, Exploration Flight Test 1, in December 2014. Launched by a Delta IV heavy, that Orion capsule was sent into a high-Earth orbit to test, among other things, its heat shield and recovery techniques.
After EM-1 flies, however, the schedule after that is less certain. EM-2, the first crewed flight of Orion, which will see the SLS send the spacecraft and astronauts into a lunar orbit, is expected sometime between 2021 and 2023 with the latter being more likely.
The projected likely budget for NASA into the 2020s also only allows for one, maybe two, SLS flights per year.
Implications of returning to the Moon
There are a number of questions that will need to be addressed if a return to the Moon with the goal of creating a sustained presence is indeed ultimately chosen by the Trump administration and Congress.
If it only means setting up a habitat in cislunar space, then NASA is already working toward that goal, which is also directed by Congress. In the 2015 omnibus spending bill, NASA was ordered to develop a prototype habitat by 2018.
Under the agency’s NextSTEP program, it is doing just that. Currently, six companies are competing to develop a prototype deep space habitat that could be used in cislunar space.
However, if there is a massive change, be it to go to the surface of the Moon or directly to Mars, NASA will need additional funding. Will Congress and the president allocate the funds to achieve such a goal? If the past is any indication, the outlook isn’t good.
Additionally, if a change in direction ultimately does happen, does that mean NASA is destined to have its direction changed every 4 to 8 years when presidential administrations change? Only time will tell.
Jason Rhian, Lloyd Campbell, and Curt Godwin contributed to this story.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.