President Trump has decided that NASA should send American astronauts to land on the moon within five years. It is a risky political decision that could negatively affect the American space program.
When President John F. Kennedy spoke to a joint session of Congress in Washington on May 25, 1961 and declared that America should land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, it was political decision driven by the Cold War.
When Vice President Pence spoke at the Fifth Meeting of the National Space Council on March 26 in Huntsville, Alabama and announced that Americans would land astronauts on the moon within five years, it was a political decision driven in part by ego.
It’s been no secret that President Trump wants to have a significant achievement by America’s space program during his term in office. It would be a major achievement he could take credit for, and which would be part of his Presidential legacy. And make no mistake about it, Trump’s legacy is important to him.
But can President Trump pull it off? And what happens if he fails?
The Pence speech
Vice President’s Pence speech on behalf of the President was a challenge to the American space community. It also contained some contradictions.
For the U.S. to achieve the goal of landing American astronauts on the moon within five years will require sustained increased funding at a time when NASA’s budget continues to get smaller as a percentage of the federal budget.
Pence acknowledged that funding will be needed when he said “President Trump is committed to building a space program worthy of our great nation. And we’re going to continue to work with leaders in Congress and Senator Shelby and others to provide the Marshall Space Flight Center and all of NASA the resources they need to meet to the goal that we articulated today.”
He then went on to talk about how NASA must do better, must change to meet the challenges. Specifically he stated “NASA must transform itself into a leaner, more accountable, and more agile organization. If NASA is not currently capable of landing American astronauts on the Moon in five years, we need to change the organization, not the mission.”
A leaner NASA suggests a smaller workforce with a budget to match. How can you reconcile a leaner NASA with an objective that has a tight timeline and which needs more money, a lot more money?
Funding and politics
On May 13 NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said NASA needed an additional US$1.6 billion for its fiscal year 2020 budget to kickstart the moon by 2024 program, now known as the Artemis program. He said it was “down payment” for the plan to land American astronauts on the moon by 2024. He also stated that the figure of US$8 billion a year as reported by the media was wrong. He also would not state what the costs would be.
NASA needs that funding approved as soon as possible. The White House has come up with a creative way of getting the money without affecting any current NASA program. They will use a surplus of funds from an educational program, the Pell Grants. Congress may squawk a bit, but could ultimately agree to it.
The bigger problem for the White House is not revealing yet what the true full cost of the program. NASA does not need to unveil its 2021 fiscal year request until March. And with next year being a Presidential election year, it might be easier to deal with the funding issue then.
This week a chart was leaked to several media outlets which included a notional NASA plan for the Artemis program. The scope of the what hardware is needed, and when, gives you an idea of what the costs of the program could be.
So let’s not kid ourselves here, it’s going to be expensive. NASA may have nixed the media reports that it would cost about US$8 billion a year, but through 2024 it could very well cost between US$20 billion on the lower end to as much as US$40 billion on the high end. Beyond 2024 it gets even more expensive.
Sources SpaceQ has spoken to suggest that NASA’s amended budget request has a chance of being approved despite some Democrats pushing back, but the political battle is just starting.
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee said in a statement on NASA’s budget amendment request “we don’t know how much money will be required in total to meet the arbitrary 2024 Moon landing deadline or how that money will be spent.” She further stated “the President is proposing to further cut a beneficial needs-based grants program that provides a lifeline to low-income students, namely the Pell Grants program, in order to pay for the first year of this initiative—something that I cannot support.” And then she closed her statement saying “I am going to reserve judgment on the overall Moon landing plan until Congress is provided with more concrete information on the proposed lunar initiative.”
Trump takes a risk
The Trump administration plan to return Americans to the moon by 2024 is risky. Without minimizing the risks, it’s clear that the U.S. could technically make the plan work, possibly even by 2024.
However, the U.S. has flustered its partners. What was once an international space exploration plan based on consensus through the architecture as outlined in the Global Exploration Roadmap, is now an America first plan.
NASA is trying to protect its international partners, but clearly the new plan through 2024 has little need of its international partners. In fact, with respect to hardware, it looks like it’s going to be all U.S. hardware with the exception of the Orion Service Module supplied by the European Space Agency. Canada may supply an astronaut health AI program and possibly some health technology, but there’s no guarantee that will happen. Even after 2024 it appears from this notional chart that there may be little need of international hardware other than the Canadian supplied robotic system in 2027.
The U.S. has to be mindful how of it treats its partners. The result could see those partners looking elsewhere to cooperate on space projects. You can bet China would be happy to welcome potential new partners to some of its ambitious projects such as their space station and lunar base. Of note, China has been part of the Global Exploration Roadmap development.
Assuming Congress approves the US$1.6 billion requested by NASA for its 2020 budget, Trump still needs to get reelected. And while incumbent President’s tend to get reelected, there’s no guarantee. What happens if he losses? Will the plan go forward? Will a new President reset the space program, yet again?
In recent times Congress has worked for the most part in a bipartisan fashion with respect to the space program. That was before Trump put forward his moon by 2024 plan. Democrats loathe how Trump has acted as President. Why would they reward him with an achievement that would stroke his ego and be a part of his legacy?
Trump’s America first plan for the moon is shortsighted. It’s sending exactly the wrong message at the wrong time. Over the years the U.S. and its international partners have come to realize it’s better to work together on large scale space programs. It builds ties between nations, costs are shared based on what each nation can bring to the table, and importantly, it sends the geopolitical message that cooperation between nations benefits everyone. Everyone but the Trump administration seems to understand this.