Spaceflight Insider

Bill introduced to redirect NASA to Moon, establish sustained presence

Cislunar habitat

An artist’s rendering of a space station in cislunar space utilizing a combination of private and government vehicles. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

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.

2017 U.S. Capitol Building 2017 Inaugural Parade Donald Trump photo credit Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

Photo Credit: Mark Usciak / SpaceFlight Insider

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.

Other legislation

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

STS-129 and Ares_I-X

The Ares I-X test flight, right, launches in 2009 from Launch Complex 39B as Space Shuttle mission STS-129 sits on Launch Pad 39A in the foreground. This was the only test flight of the Constellation Program. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: NASA

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.

President Obama gives his space policy speech to employees of the Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / SpaceFlight Insider

Constellation Canceled

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, the future of manned spaceflight, lifts off in the distance as Apollo 1's Launch Complex 34 stands in the foreground. Photo Credit: Sean Costello / SpaceFlight Insider

Orion, the future of crewed spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit, lifts off in the distance as Apollo 1’s Launch Complex 34 stands in the foreground. Photo Credit: Sean Costello / SpaceFlight Insider

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.

Multiple pieces of development hardware and test equipment have been produced for the SLS and Orion, and 2017 is expected to see a flurry of activity to ready hardware for EM-1.

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 website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.

Reader Comments

Once again, we shift gears, change objectives, waste time and money. Can’t our elected officials see that space exploration is not a 4 or even 8 year program? The Chinese have the right idea, set a long-term goal and stick to it.

The American pwople need to get behind the program. A strong a charismatic figure, should enliat our support. The problem is publuc awareness — the solving of which would give the go ahead for funding.

Brian: But what was the current plan? Fly around the Moon once a year? Towing an asteroid boulder no asteroid researcher or asteroid miner is interested in? Obama’s plan has been “Anything but what was planned during Bush!” Returning to the Moon is a great idea. Develop a Lunar lander and ascent vehicle and launch it and the fueled propulsion stage with the yearly SLS launch that can be afforded. Launch the crew to dock with it in Earth’s orbit with a Falcon 9 launched Dragon, so the SLS doesn’t need to be human rated and can save a number of payload tons by skipping the old fashioned launch abort tower. Use a Falcon Heavy to preplace an uncrewed Lunar Dragon on the Moon to provide a two weeks habitat and equipment for four astronauts.

This might be done within 8 years, before the 50 year mark of leaving the Moon in December 1976. After a few such landings, exploration should be mature for a permanently crewed Lunar base with another kind of architecture. And cancel the Orion, it is useless by design since it is too inflexible with both launches and landings, too heavy and too expensive to fly often enough to be safely proven for human use.

It is NASA that has to understand that it operates on behalf of a White House that shifts every 4 or 8 years. That won’t change. Crying about Earth having too much gravity doesn’t help. And NASA has obeyed the president’s order to not accomplish anything for human space flight during the last and lost 8 years. NASA certainly has real plans for how to return to the Moon, the Moon is NSA’s historical triumph and cultural soul. I’m happy to see legislators caring about NASA HSF instead of just letting it continue without any purpose or results.

The last manned landing (Apollo 17) took place in December of 1972, not 1976.

The SLS is too expensive at $4 BILLION per launch. NASA will fly 2 of them and then abandon it having wasted $15 BILLION and 12 years. As Brian said, we need a long term vision for space exploration.

Simple. Manned flight is not a waste of billions but close to a waste. No idea where we are going or the purpose of it. All rather silly.

In contrast unmanned missions, space tekescopes, etc. yield huge scientific returns. There is no short cut in sputting men into space. Tens of billions abd more tens of billions. To accomplish…?

I would agree on the need for a set of long term goals, that can carry over from administration to administration. However, “long term” needs to be defined in terms that are politically relevant — no “20 year plan” need be taken seriously. President Kennedy was wise enough to take advice on a plane that could be accomplished in the political lifetime of those who would put it into motion. A Mars mission similar to the Apollo mission in scope (go walk around, come back)might be achievable in that time frame, but would likely require a level of public and political support that seems unlikely in the current climate. A return to the moon, to stay, would seem more feasible, an to the extant that it allowed development of hardware and systems that could be useful in a Mars mission, would have the potential to be less of a political dead end than was the Space Race.

But whatever long-range mission is embraced, it needs to be embraced fully by those of use who wish to see manned spaceflight become something our nation does, and does better than anybody else. Infighting about it after the fact will doom us to another wasted decade.

I would also propose a thorough house-cleaning at NASA, to rid the agency of the dead wood and turf-hungry crowd that is in there now. A new mission requires a new team, dedicated less to empire building within a bureaucracy and more to carrying out the mission.


This article uses the word “Commercial” only once…in reference to Commercial Crew, a NEO project.

Why is it that Derek and others assume that it takes NASA direct contracting (and by extension Congressional permission) to get things like the Moon and Mars done?

Thank you, Derek, for at least mentioning NEXTStep. What you missed when you did that however, was another chance to say “Commercial”, because NEXTStep is basically extra-orbital Commercial Crew. It consists of Space Act Agreement projects to develop Commercial capability in deep-space habitat, propulsion, and satellite development which those companies can then carry forward to any commercial customers, not just NASA…just in case Congressional and Presidential priorities shift, again.

In a nutshell, it doesn’t matter where the President or Congress decide to go this year, 2 years from now, 4 years from now or whatever. With or without Congress, some NASA partner, launching from U.S. soil, will land someone both on the Moon and Mars long before any of the timelines you’ve written about here will bear fruit…perhaps even before EM-2.

KHOU Houston reported last night about a leak from the White House directing NASA to return to the Moon in,,3 years…..We will see

Meredith Vickers

Awesome, I hope it passes this is LONG over due.

I wonder if we’ll ever get that old fantasy about PanAm flights to the moon and Lunar hotel rooms…

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