US astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the moon's surface. Photo: NASA/AFP
US astronaut Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag on the moon's surface. Photo: NASA/AFP

More than 47 years since we last set foot on the Moon, US President Donald Trump has renewed the nation’s focus on expanding humanity’s presence beyond Earth. Space Policy Directive-1 provides the direction for NASA to accelerate plans to return to the Moon and to land humans on the surface again by 2024, by any means necessary. When Trump declared his intention to reclaim America’s heritage as the world’s greatest space-faring nation, some space advocates expressed enthusiasm for the plan, but others remained wary.

“The United States will once again send American astronauts into space on American rockets from American soil within the next five years,” US Vice President Mike Pence said to applause from the audience on May 15 at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine echoed and expanded on Pence’s message, but how the Trump administration intends to accomplish an ambitious Moon landing was not clear. It’ll take flexibility – and lots of money – to make it happen.

The challenge, and NASA’s response, has created a curious situation fraught with both technical and political peril. The White House has provided no details on how it would achieve that and no cost estimates. The rocket NASA plans to use to get there has suffered years of delays and is billions over budget, and NASA lacks the space suits necessary for astronauts to walk on the moon. How will America return to the Moon?

The Trump administration’s renewed focus requires a broader public discussion on America’s current civil space systems and how best to improve their resilience

The Trump administration’s renewed focus requires a broader public discussion on America’s current civil space systems and how best to improve their resilience. There are many steps to be taken and obstacles that must be overcome in order to send Americans back to the moon. Serious support from the US government will be required for NASA’s audacious plan to put humans on the Moon again to work.

First, it is going to be interesting to see how NASA is affected by the 5% across-the-board cuts that the White House is planning to make. For NASA, that could mean as much as half a billion dollars or so. While Vice President Pence has all but set up a second home at NASA, his enthusiasm for space exploration needs to be followed with the funding needed to fulfill his promises. Other challenges include chronic problems with the Space Launch System, the inability of NASA to implement its International Space Station (ISS) privatization plans, and sustaining enthusiasm for the initiative over time.

1. In order to implement Space Policy Directive 1, the Trump administration will need to support its rhetoric with funding. NASA will need sufficient funding to execute the directive and make significant headway in returning to the moon. If the Trump administration is serious about space exploration, the FY 2019 President’s Budget should include a substantial increase in the agency’s budget and a plan for continued growth over the coming years.

2. The Trump administration needs to give more concrete details about its plans for sending Americans to the Moon. The directive is exceedingly vague in both objectives and timelines. While the previous space policy was also somewhat vague, it at least included a rough timetable for key milestones. The new policy does not include a timetable, and without specific goals or deadlines, it will be difficult for NASA to generate momentum and a sense of urgency in its exploration program.

3. NASA needs to build a plan for Americans to orbit the moon starting in 2023, and land astronauts on the surface no later than late 2024. This will be the first chance for the majority of people alive today to witness a Moon landing – a moment when, in a state of awe, the world holds its breath. A key component of establishing the first permanent American presence and infrastructure on and around the Moon is the Gateway, a lunar orbiting platform to host astronauts farther from Earth than ever before.

4. The decisions of NASA and its partners on the future of space exploration will determine the strategic situation in space. There are difficult issues to consider in moving ahead: the target of exploration beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO), the balance between manned and unmanned programs, the future of partnership and cooperation in space, and the ultimate fate of the ISS. How NASA answers these questions will determine both the pace and the future direction of exploration in space.

5. With that larger payday in mind, it’s probably safe to assume that NASA should lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond LEO, the United States should also lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization.

6. There’s a lot of work to be done before permanent or long-term lunar activities can begin. The most critical tasks will be to practice launching and landing on the Moon, as well as answering questions about its surface. Some of that technology has to do with a recent buzzword among the space settlement community. This means using materials and resources already available on the Moon rather than carting all our resources with us, as has been standard for space missions. This most commonly means using solar power for energy. On the Moon, it will also mean extracting water, which can be used for drinking or to power rockets. Both the hydrogen and oxygen that make up water are powerful fuel materials.

7. The administration must develop a framework for partnership with commercial firms. NASA must start by helping commercial partners develop and test cheap lunar landing technologies. There are several companies already trying to do this; examples include Moon Express, which was among the groups competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, and Blue Origin, which is promoting its Blue Moon cargo delivery service. NASA could start by funding “risk-reduction” studies before awarding contracts for a demo lander in 2019.

8. Finally, NASA’s share of the federal budget at one-half of 1% is well short of the peak Apollo years of 4%, or even the average Apollo period (1962-1969) of 3%. Even counting advances in technology and lessons learned from the past, as well some direct cash contributions from the private sector, NASA will need a lot more money to achieve this goal. At least $5 billion more per year, if not $10 billion. Even with such an increase, NASA’s budget would still be below 1% of the federal budget.

Skepticism at returning to the moon by 2024 is certainly warranted, considering history. NASA must allay such suspicions is to make the project happen. It is not an easy task, but it is feasible if there is sufficient time, money and determination. Beginning with a series of small commercial delivery missions, NASA will use new tools and technology to conduct scientific studies across the surface of the Moon. With some of humanity’s most advanced technologies, future astronauts will stay longer on the surface of the Moon, explore more of it than ever imagined, and build a sustainable presence.

NASA needs to develop a strategy for effectively leveraging both commercial and international partners to send humans on missions to the Moon. However, as Vice President Pence and NASA administrator Bridenstine have drilled deeper into the agency’s human exploration programs over the years, they’ve grown frustrated at the pace of progress. Perhaps NASA’s campaign efforts should be focused on transitioning US human spaceflight to commercial operations. If they can do it, the long-delayed, long-dreamed-of return to the Moon will have finally become a reality, with all that implies.

Kent Wang

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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