People often ask: Why haven’t we gone back to the moon? Sadly, the answer is “budget politics.”
So why should anyone expect that anything has changed? The Trump administration has announced that it wants to get America back to the moon by 2024, the last year of a putative second Trump term. It looks to be quite a challenge, but there are a few realities that just might allow this administration to pull it off.
George H. W. Bush had his Space Exploration initiative; his son had the Vision for Space Exploration, also known as the Constellation Program. Barack Obama didn’t bother with the moon but promoted an Asteroid Redirect Mission. None of these efforts succeeded, but the one that had the best chance was Constellation.
Two elements of that program survived, the Orion capsule and the heavy launcher, once known as the Ares 5 but now called the Space Launch System (SLS). The capsule is well along in the development process and passed its first flight test. The SLS development process has been slow, but if it is ready to be fully tested in 2020 or 2021, it just might be able to fulfill the administration’s directive.
The arguments inside the space industry over how we get to the moon or anywhere else in space are amazingly bitter. It sometimes seems as if some people at NASA and some of NASA’s critics are more interested in wrecking the plans of their critics than they are in expanding human presence outside this planet. There’s also political bickering in D.C. to consider, and in the current atmosphere it will take an almost miraculous flowering of bipartisan goodwill to see this accomplished.
And yet the building blocks are in place to make this mission possible.
The structure of the annual debate over the budget has changed. Trump wants to increase defense spending but not domestic spending; the Democrats insist that both defense and non-defense spending be increased by equal amounts. Since NASA spending counts as domestic for budget purposes, any increase in NASA’s budget now counts as a political victory for the Democrats. Combined with the way that some appropriators keep pushing programs such as SLS, there is a real chance that the program might come together. However, the SLS team based at the Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., needs some serious motivation in order to comply with the president’s marching orders.
This motivation is being largely supplied by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Irene Klotz in Aviation Week reports that of all the alternatives to SLS, the only one that might be able to fly an Orion to the moon is a United Launch Alliance (ULA) upper stage coupled with a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. This kind of cooperation between “Old Space” and “New Space” — as ULA is owned by Boeing and Lockheed — just might overcome some of the inveterate existing hostility.
The details of getting back to the moon by 2024 are still a work in progress. There are some big unanswered questions: Will Congress agree to a big budget increase for NASA, like it did last year ? Will NASA and its critics agree on the fate of the proposed Lunar Gateway, an optionally manned small space station in lunar orbit? Can NASA and its contractors design and develop a lunar lander on schedule?
Most important of all, can America and the U.S. space industry stop bickering for long enough to build and launch a mission that will get us back to the moon and lay the basis for the humanization of our solar system ?