Huh? Trump says NASA should stop talking about the Moon
For 18 months, NASA has been focused on returning humans to the Moon under Space Policy Directive 1—signed by President Trump. Is he changing course?
Presidential directives for NASA often change when a new administration takes over. However, it doesn’t usually happen by the same president in the middle of their term less than two years after making the change, less than three months after making a big deal on accelerating said directive and less than four weeks after making a supplemental budget request to Congress to pay for said goals.
“For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago,” Trump tweeted on June 7, 2019, “They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!”
To be fair, this isn’t technically an official course reversal. It is, however, a rather confusing and perplexing statement given how less than a month ago the president tweeted “Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars.”
Over the last several months, NASA has worked to reorganize its existing plans around the new Artemis program, including figuring out ways to accelerate the program from an initial human landing in 2028 to 2024.
It is possible this is an attempt by the president to get NASA to direct its branding strategy away from a “Moon return” focus to a “stepping stone to Mars” focus. Trump’s statement of “we did that 50 years ago” also echoes those of President Obama in 2010 when Obama said “we’ve been there before” during a speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center directing the space agency to focus on sending people to an asteroid.
While the Trump administration axed those plans, the space policies of both administrations had the Red Planet as the long-term focus. Both called for Mars landings sometime in the 2030s.
The goal of the Artemis program under Space Policy Directive 1, signed by President Trump in December 2017, is to return people to the Moon in a sustainable way with international and commercial partners and use the skills and technology gained to prepare for Mars missions sometime after that.
As @POTUS said, @NASA is using the Moon to send humans to Mars! Right now, @MarsCuriosity and @NASAInSight are on Mars and will soon be joined by the Mars 2020 rover and the Mars helicopter. pic.twitter.com/Br1sTYfNzd
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) June 7, 2019
To do this, NASA wants to build a small outpost around the Moon called the Lunar Gateway, which would serve as a staging point to assemble a human-rated lunar lander. After that, astronauts would launch inside an Orion spacecraft atop a Space Launch System rocket to travel to the Gateway, transfer to the lander, and then travel to the Moon’s surface.
In the years after, NASA would focus on making this new human presence around the Moon sustainable by utilizing resources on the lunar surface. That technology would then be built around future Mars missions.
So what does the president’s tweet mean right now? Probably not a whole lot. However, it could dampen any efforts by to get Congress to agree on the funding the needed for the Artemis program. If the president doesn’t appear sold on his own policy, why should Congress allocate the money for the program?
The agency said it needs a minimum of $1.6 billion on top of the $21 billion fiscal year 2020 budget request just to get the project started.
Additionally, reception in Congress has been mixed, mainly on the detail that the administration proposes paying for the Artemis program, at least in 2020, using a surplus in the federal Pell Grant program.
Additionally, NASA has not revealed how much the full Artemis program would cost through 2024. According to Ars Technica, some sources have suggested it would require the agency to have an additional $6 billion to $8 billion per year on top of its normal budget of around $21 billion.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has denied the cost is that high, but has not given any indication what the final cost might be other than it would require the agency’s budget to continually increase for the next several years before leveling off.
In the meantime, NASA is looking at additional ways to help pay for the Artemis program, including starting the process of opening up the International Space Station to commercial companies, including private astronaut trips to the outpost using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft.
Companies that send private astronauts to the ISS would have to pay NASA to use the $100 billion facility’s consumables to the tune of around $35,000 dollars a day. Starting as early as 2020.
Video courtesy of NASA
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.