Vice President Mike Pence threw down the gauntlet at a meeting of the National Space Council. NASA will return astronauts to the moon in the next five years “by any means necessary.” The announcement represents a massive course correction from the slow, “sustainable” course the space agency has been on to something more like the race to the moon of the 1960s. Indeed, Pence noted that the United States and her allies are in a race with China, a country that seeks to use the moon to achieve world domination. The announcement is a culmination of a number of policy changes the Trump administration has executed.
First, the Trump administration made space news with the FY 2020 budget proposal that removed the often-delayed, very expensive Space Launch System from building the Lunar Gateway and for launching exploration probes such as the Europa Clipper. Then, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced before the Senate Commerce Committee that the space agency is considering abandoning the SLS for next year’s scheduled Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1).
As originally envisioned, EM-1 would launch an uncrewed Orion spacecraft in an orbit around the moon. The flight is currently scheduled for June 2020. But delays in developing the SLS have pushed that mission back several times, delaying subsequent missions, including EM-2 which would launch a crewed version of the Orion, as well.
The new plan would involve launching the uncrewed Orion on a commercial rocket, probably either a Delta IV-Heavy or a Falcon Heavy, into low Earth orbit. A second rocket would launch a fully fueled upper stage, which would then dock with the Orion and blast it out of Earth orbit to complete the lunar mission.
Several things must happen for this change to take place. A number of technical changes have to be made to the Orion to enable it to fly on a commercial rocket and dock with the upper stage. But more importantly, the supporters of the Space Launch System, particularly the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee Sen Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, must be persuaded that this change of launch vehicles is necessary and does not threaten the long-term prospects of the SLS ever flying.
Along the last point, Bridenstine was careful to promise that NASA is committed to the long-term development of the Space Launch System. Indeed, he recently tweeted:
“Good news: The @NASA and Boeing teams are working overtime to accelerate the launch schedule of @NASA_SLS. If achievable, this is the preferred option for our first exploration mission that will send the @NASA_Orion capsule around the Moon. Still looking at options”
The suggestion is that the proposal to go commercial has lit a fire under the Space Launch System development teams to get serious about producing a flyable rocket,
However, if NASA can pull off EM-1 using commercial rockets, the case for even continuing the SLS takes a huge hit. If the space agency needs a super-heavy-lift rocket eventually, SpaceX’s Elon Musk is building one in Texas that will serve nicely for lunar, Mars, and beyond-Mars exploration. Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos has hinted at a follow-on to the orbit-capable New Glenn called the New Armstrong that might also serve. Meanwhile, using existing commercial rockets will do nicely. Pence pretty much implied that NASA would shift to commercial vehicles if the Space Launch System continued to suffer delays.
Why is the Trump administration making this policy change? The broad answer is that it is very serious about going back (or forward) to the moon as soon as possible. Pence is reported to be extremely irate at the continued delays and cost overruns being suffered by the Space Launch System and said so in his Huntsville address. Pence and Trump want Americans on the moon, the sooner the better. This hands-on approach contrasts favorably to that of both the Obama and the Bush administrations, which rolled out deep space exploration programs with great fanfare, then all but forgot about them.
The narrow answer to the question is that the Trump administration really would like a major milestone in the return-to-the-moon program to occur in advance of the 2020 presidential elections, something that might not happen if the Space Launch System were retained. President Trump would have a perfect line at his famous monster rallies, boasting that he is accomplishing something that eluded both of his predecessors. If Americans return to the moon in five years during a prospective Trump second term, the mission would be a glorious capstone to his presidency.
Bridenstine, for his part, stands to gain a lot of street cred if NASA gets to the moon in five years, using the Space Launch System or commercial rockets. In a way, the potential sudden change of policy has echoes of the old NASA of the Apollo era, which decided to send Apollo 8 around the moon mere months before the mission occurred. NASA has always been popular with the public, but that kind of coolness would be worth more than billions of dollars in extra funding.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.