Spaceflight Insider

Huh? Trump says NASA should stop talking about the Moon

An illustration of a version of NASA's Lunar Gateway with a lander docked. NASA says the Gateway is required for the Artemis program to be successful in returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

An illustration of a version of NASA’s Lunar Gateway with a lander docked. NASA says the Gateway is required for the Artemis program to be successful in returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

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!”

A NASA graphic showcasing the Artemis program during phase one between now and 2024. Artemis 3 would see a crew land on the Moon in 2024. Image Credit: NASA

A NASA graphic showcasing the Artemis program during phase one between now and 2024. Artemis 3 would see a crew land on the Moon in 2024. Image Credit: NASA

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.

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.

While NASA is utilizing the SLS and Orion to send astronauts to the Moon, it is planning to lean on commercial companies to design and build the Gateway and lunar lander system.

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.

President Donald Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1 in December 2017, which directs NASA to return to the Moon. Standing alongside him in the White House's Roosevelt room were members of the Senate, Congress, NASA, and commercial space companies. Photo Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA

President Donald Trump signs Space Policy Directive 1 in December 2017, which directs NASA to return to the Moon. Standing alongside him in the White House’s Roosevelt room were members of the Senate, Congress, NASA, and commercial space companies. Photo Credit: Aubrey Gemignani / NASA

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

 

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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. He met with members of the SpaceFlight Insider team during the flight of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 551 rocket with the MUOS-4 satellite. Richardson joined our team shortly thereafter. His passion for space ignited when he watched Space Shuttle Discovery launch into space Oct. 29, 1998. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized his true calling was communicating to others about space. Since joining SpaceFlight Insider in 2015, Richardson has worked to increase the quality of our content, eventually becoming our managing editor. @TheSpaceWriter

Reader Comments

Good story, Derek.

Too infinity and beyond!
Perhaps President Trump is saying – don’t get stuck on just the moon project, look beyond it. Partner with commercial space services and really take “a giant leap for mankind”.

What nasa is doing is brilliant. Sending people to the moon to set up some sort of base of operations or outpost. This will help with the mars missions.

Agree. Sometimes the criticism is spot on, but this time it is a bit harsh. He could use better words though.

President needs remember what last ordered, space programs don’t turn on dime. Nor does it make stuff happen over short span of months. Lordy, i’m surprised people at NASA hasn’t resign because their tired of people changing their minds.

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