US President Donald Trump's call on NASA to land American astronauts on the Moon by 2024 is the latest episode in a long-running saga.
For speechwriters – and indeed for many Americans – former president John F Kennedy's "we choose to go to the Moon" declaration, made in a set-piece speech to a football stadium crowd at Rice University in Houston in September 1962, is nearly as memorable as the Apollo 11 landing that followed seven years later.
"We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people," Kennedy told the crowd in his rallying call for human spaceflight. The speech urged Americans to be leaders in space, so that “[we can] help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theatre of war”.
Kennedy subsequently suggested a joint US-Soviet Moon mission. Such a collaborative venture of course never happened – although, post-Apollo, US-Soviet collaboration in space was realised in the joint Apollo-Soyuz orbital mission in 1975, then later and to this day with Russia through the International Space Station.
Ultimately, of course, NASA's Apollo 11 crew – Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins – did it all under the Stars and Stripes, but also left behind a plaque declaring: "We came in peace for all mankind." The event captivated the world, with an estimated global audience of 530 million people, one in seven of the global population at that time and Muscovites among them, watching the televised Moon landing on 20 July 1969.
Presidents in recent decades have sought to recapture the world's imagination in that same way by tasking NASA with accomplishing new feats. Despite their passion, these administrations – both Democratic and Republican – have not always given NASA consistent direction on human spaceflight. The US public also remains divided about whether the next big challenge should be returning humans to the lunar surface or landing on Mars. The space community also disagrees about how those missions should be planned and funded, to ensure one goal does not indefinitely delay the other.
Aldrin speaks for many Americans who want to do both. As a prominent US statesman of space exploration, the former astronaut in recent years has both declared "get your ass to Mars" in online campaigns and supported returning humans to the Moon to help prepare NASA for Mars missions.
The Trump administration in March directed NASA to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024, accelerating a previous deadline of 2028. But sceptics want a detailed mission plan to rally the many billions of dollars needed for that effort. Even before March, Aldrin and others in the space community had questioned whether NASA's plan for a Moon landing by 2028 would be both efficient and part of a clear path to Mars. "Plans without a detailed architecture, and without that 'next step' into the future, are just fantasy,” Aldrin wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post in May.
LOST IN SPACE POLICY
Boots on extra-terrestrial soil play well in US political theatre, and President Donald Trump followed an old script to make his mark on the US space programme in 2017, when he signed a policy directive ordering NASA to return astronauts to the lunar surface, a programme now named Artemis – in Greek mythology, the daughter of Zeus and twin sister of Apollo. But this lunar focus was a change of tack for NASA. In a 2010 speech at the Kennedy Space Center, Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, tasked the agency with landing humans on an asteroid as part of a longer-term scheme of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. "We've been there before," Obama said in his speech diverting NASA's focus away from a Moon landing.
Obama, too, was changing a course set before he took office. Entering the White House as the financial crisis bit hard, he ended the over-budget and behind-schedule return-to-the-Moon-by-2020 programme that was the vision of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Building momentum for returning humans to deep space was also a challenge for President George H.W. Bush, who in 1989 pitched an unrealised plan to establish a permanent base on the moon by 2001. Even Kennedy did not enjoy undiluted enthusiasm for his Moon plan; the huge cost and questions about its value dogged the effort through the 1960s.
While NASA's orders have shifted, the agency has kept some of the equipment from abandoned programmes and repurposed it, such as the solar electric propulsion intended to move an asteroid closer to Earth as part of Obama's landing project. Still, flexible equipment engineering cannot compensate for the "zig-zag" of inconsistent presidential direction, says Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
"There has been a lot of inefficient progress, wasted time and wasted money," Harrison says. "The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions in the 1960s all tested technology to get to the moon. NASA had a consistent direction."
Fears of wasting money could be the top obstacle facing the Artemis mission. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine estimates that accelerating a Moon landing deadline to 2024 could cost $20-30 billion over five years – adding $4-6 billion per year to NASA's annual budget, which now stands at about $18 billion. "Dialogue is continuing with the administration and Congress to finalise details for a successful sustainable Moon to Mars exploration approach," NASA says in a statement, adding that "budgetary estimates are fluid".
The White House in March requested a $21 billion budget for NASA for fiscal year 2020, followed by an amendment in May asking Congress to appropriate an additional $1.6 billion to cover the first year of the Artemis mission.
As requested, that $1.6 billion would come from the Pell Grants programme, which supports education for low-income students – a budgetary sleight-of-hand which spurred criticism from Democratic representatives on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, including its space subcommittee chair, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma. "Getting Americans back to the Moon and on to Mars is going to take more scientists and engineers, not fewer," said Horn.
THE LURE OF MARS
NASA's argument that landing humans on the Moon would be a "proving ground" to test technology for Mars missions has generated debate. The Moon, the agency says, is a closer and safer destination than Mars for NASA to have its first human mission in deep space since Apollo 17 in 1972.
Technology for Artemis, however, could be difficult to directly repurpose for the Red Planet. Human landers for the Moon would need a redesign for Mars, because of the greater gravity and extra challenge of its thin atmosphere. Landing on Mars is notoriously difficult, as the atmosphere is thick enough to generate spacecraft-destroying heat on arrival at hypersonic speeds but too thin for parachutes to be fully effective.
NASA's record is mixed, and Mars success has eluded the Russians, although its 1971 Mars 3 mission reached the surface – the first spacecraft to do so – but failed after a few seconds’ communication with Earth.
Landing on the Moon by 2024 is not as daring as going to Mars, but NASA has "decided on a definite date, which gives it the potential to be real", says Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and the founder of the non-profit Mars Society. Zubrin views Mars as a goal that could inspire the next generation of scientists and "thus would pay for the Mars programme many times over".
"You cannot make an argument that it is impossible to go to the Moon, since NASA has done it," says Zubrin, author of The Case for Space. "Mars is where the challenge is, Mars is where the science is, Mars is where the future is."
A major criticism Zubrin has of the Artemis plan is that he thinks NASA should be more open-minded about contracting and less wedded to existing projects.
One of those existing projects is the Gateway, conceived during the Obama administration as a space station in near lunar orbit. It has been a major target for critics who view NASA's Moon mission timeline as ambitious but incomplete. Trump's NASA has adapted part of its original intent as a docking port for astronauts to spend weeks at a time doing experiments and remotely piloting robots on the lunar surface.
"I'm quite opposed to the Gateway," Aldrin said in November during a meeting of the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group at NASA headquarters. Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who also attended the meeting of the group, which advises the White House about space, was convinced the USA could land humans on the Moon before 2028 but said the Gateway would be "a stupid architecture".
Despite naysayers, contracting for the Gateway has begun. NASA in May contracted Maxar Technologies to develop the Gateway's Power and Propulsion Element (PPE) to provide electricity to the space station and move it with solar-electric propulsion. The Gateway would be launched in several pieces and assembled at a so-called Lagrange point between the Earth and Moon, a gravitational balance point where an object will remain in line with the two bodies. This PPE would be launched in 2022. Maxar is working on a fixed-price contract that gives NASA a buy-or-no option on the finished product. The contract will be valued at $375 million if NASA goes ahead.
SCIENCE OR BRAGGING RIGHTS?
Since taking his post in 2018, Bridenstine – a former Congressman who is well-versed in Washington politics – has become a staunch advocate for the agency's Moon timeline and Gateway. Bridenstine says returning humans to the Moon is about more than just "flags and footprints" and sees constructing the Gateway as a chance to maximise the scientific potential of returning astronauts to deep space.
Days after the advisory group meeting in November, Bridenstine responded to questions about Griffin's scepticism. Bridenstine said having a space station for astronauts to dock in between Moon landings could avoid the risk of "learning a lot about a small part of the Moon".
With its own propulsion, the Gateway would be mobile and host opportunities to descend to many more locations than the equatorial spots visited by the direct-to-Moon Apollo sorties. He also cautioned against returning humans to the lunar surface too quickly without taking time to guarantee safety and maximise the scientific worth of the mission.
Griffin during the advisory group meeting also said 2028 was too distant a deadline, in part because of China's progress on its Chang'e programme, named after the Chinese goddess of the Moon. If China landed humans before the USA returned, he said: “such an event would cause a realignment of geopolitical thinking that would be extremely damaging to the USA".
But while China's Moon programme has launched headlines about a new space race, Bridenstine says that catchphrase is not true: "We won that race in 1969. We wish them well."
China in January achieved a first, by landing a spacecraft – the robotic Chang’e 4 rover – on the far side of the Moon, never visible from Earth. In Congress, Bridenstine voted during each budget cycle to re-authorise the 2011 ban that keeps NASA from working directly with China in part because co-operating in space is a major diplomatic bargaining chip. He hopes that national security tensions with Beijing could eventually improve and enable the type of detente in space that has flourished for decades between Washington and Moscow, even during the Soviet era.
Science may drive NASA, but current events drive the lawmakers giving the agency directions. It can be "seductive for a president to make some bold claim about space exploration", says Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser at the Planetary Society, a science advocacy group. Trump is different from Obama or either Bush, all of whom set deadlines beyond their terms that could potentially absolve them of political ownership, Dreier says.
"There definitely would be a political benefit but it also has a political risk," Dreier says of Trump targeting 2024 for a Moon landing.
Politics certainly drove NASA during the 1960s. Kennedy won election in 1960 in part by accusing Republicans of not doing enough to counter the Soviets in space. The newly elected president became desperate for a victory in April 1961, when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space and Cuban communist forces defeated the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion. Kennedy sent a memo to his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson, days after those events asking whether the USA had a chance of beating the Soviets in space.
A month later, in May, Kennedy asked a joint session of Congress to decide whether the nation was ready to accept the "heavy burden" of costs and commitment to send humans to the Moon. "If we are not, we should decide today and this year," Kennedy told Congress, mixing caution with ambition.
Even with Cold War politics on his side, Kennedy faced critics who wondered whether spending billions of dollars on NASA was better than spending on domestic problems such as poverty, Dreier says. "Beating the Soviets was almost entirely the motivation, the scientific value argument was added later," Dreier says of the Apollo programme. "People forget about the domestic opposition against NASA spending."
Between 1960 and 1973 the USA spent $490 billion on NASA in today's dollars adjusted for inflation, including $288 billion for projects directed at landing astronauts on the Moon, according to studies of contracts and government records compiled by the Planetary Society.
PRIVATE SECTOR LIMITS
The Trump administration has sought support for its exploration goals by promising to contract with a growing commercial space sector to offset some costs and stimulate the development of a space economy. SpaceX founder Elon Musk and his counterpart at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos, have also spoken about investing in their own visions for developing a sustained presence in space. Those companies are bolstered by private fortunes but consistent government leadership is still necessary to support their ambitions, Dreier says. Even if SpaceX is not directly contracted for Artemis and related missions, the company's exploration goals "could be indirectly funded by the government", through contracts to launch satellites on its rockets, Dreier says.
Bridenstine has said NASA must lead the way and "retire risks" of going to the Moon and Mars before a space economy can be built on the path it lays out.
The chance for riches from a space economy are one reason NASA has chosen the Moon's south polar region for landing humans. Once thought to be bone dry, the south pole – where some protected zones never see sunlight – is now known to hold probably hundreds of millions of tonnes of water ice. With access to solar-electric power, that water would yield hydrogen and oxygen – critical for life support or useable as rocket fuel, all independent of resupply from Earth.
It will take years to build those space economies, but NASA's Moon programme is encouraging the private sector to dream big. In several speeches, Bezos has reiterated his dream of a "trillion humans" one day living in space, not to replace Earth or avoid the challenges of climate change but to keep humanity vital by confronting fresh challenges.
As far as any Moon return is concerned, however, one of the greatest challenges remains the very earthly matter of politics. Speaking at the Paris air show last month, Bridenstine responded to queries about the haste of a 2024 timetable. NASA, he said, has to deal with two types of risk. One is technical – but NASA is, he hardly needed to assure his audience, good at that.
The far more challenging risk is politics. World events, economic cycles and changes of administration have, in the past, scuppered lunar plans. So, Bridenstine made clear, the way to "retire political risk" is to go fast.
Additional reporting by Dan Thisdell in Paris
Source: Flight International