The Trump administration wants astronauts on the moon by 2024. But what’s the plan?
US astronauts will walk on the moon again before the end of 2024 “by any means necessary,” Vice President Mike Pence said at a meeting of the National Space Council on Tuesday.
“It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Pence said at the United States Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. a model of an Apollo landing module that first transported American astronauts to the lunar surface 50 years ago.
Mr Pence described the need for NASA to adopt a greater urgency to return to the moon. But an accelerated pace has not been evident in the Trump administration’s NASA budget requests to Congress, raising many questions about how it will be possible for the agency to achieve this ambitious goal.
The vice president’s remarks called for changes in the agency’s approach and culture, reflecting frustration within the administration over repeated delays in the development of NASA’s giant rocket, the Space Launch. System, and Orion, a capsule to take astronauts beyond low earth orbit to the moon and eventually, eventually, to Mars.
Two weeks ago, Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, announced at a Senate subcommittee hearing that the rocket’s schedule had slipped again and that it would not be ready in time for the first test flight planned, without an astronaut on board, next June. year.
He added that NASA was instead considering using smaller commercial rockets to launch Orion for this test flight.
Mr Bridenstine later said that Boeing, prime contractor for the SLS, was looking to speed up its work.
“I am confident that we can achieve this first launch in 2020 for SLS and fly the crew capsule around the moon,” Bridenstine said at the space council meeting.
NASA’s current schedule is 2023 for Orion’s first flight with astronauts on board. A moon landing would not take place until 2028, in almost a decade.
Right now, the space agency plans to first build a small moon-orbiting outpost called the Gateway. Astronauts would travel between the outpost and the lunar surface.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is just not enough,” Mr Pence said of the timeline, laid out in the budget documents weeks ago. “We are better than that.”
Lockheed Martin, which builds the Orion capsule, said Tuesday in a statement that it could help send astronauts to the moon by 2024 with an incomplete version of Gateway.
Mr. Pence and other critics point out that only eight years passed between President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1961 announcement of a plan to reach the moon and the Apollo 11 moon landing.
Mr Pence spoke of the specter of China, which has landed on the far side of the moon this year and also hopes to land astronauts on the moon in the 2020s.
He also worried about the cost of dependence on Russia, which has provided transportation for NASA astronauts to the International Space Station since the space shuttles retired in 2011.
“We are also running against our own worst enemy,” Pence said. “Complacency.”
Mr Pence said NASA’s Mr Bridenstine had made a plan to return to the moon. But how this could be accomplished by the end of 2024 was far from clear.
NASA, for example, did not start work on a lunar lander, nor did it issue a contract to commercial companies to work on one.
Mr Pence said the astronauts would land near the lunar south pole, where water ice exists in eternally shaded craters, adding to the technical complexity.
The Apollo program of the 1960s received significant financial resources to achieve its ambitious goals. NASA’s budget this year is $ 21.5 billion, the largest in years.
But the Trump administration has proposed reducing that amount to $ 21 billion next year and then forecasting annual increases of 1%.
While Pence praised the work of the Marshall Space Flight Center, which leads NASA’s rocket development, he also said the agency should switch to alternatives if those are faster and cheaper.
“If a commercial enterprise can deliver a rocket or a lunar lander or other capability faster at a lower cost to the taxpayer than the status quo, NASA must have the authority and the courage to change course quickly and decisively. to achieve that goal, ”Pence said.
He said he was challenging everyone in the US space effort to “think bigger, fail smarter, and work harder than ever.”
While the moon landings of the 1960s and 1970s were successful, NASA has since been critical for neglecting the risks that led to the loss of two space shuttles, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Fourteen astronauts died in these failures.
Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said NASA has become over the years too cautious.
“NASA must be allowed to fail,” he said in an interview. “You don’t do exploration without failure.”
Mr Dumbacher, who was once a senior NASA official and helped lead early development of Orion and the space launch system, said the agency must be prepared to defend its engineers in the event of a failure.
One of the options being considered to get the SLS back on schedule is to skip a series of test shots from the first stage of the rocket.
Mr Dumbacher said he did not have the data to decide when it would be a smart compromise to make, but “I think it is worth serious consideration.”
At the same meeting, members of the National Space Council came up with other ideas separate from the discussion of returning to the moon.
Kelvin Droegemeier, President Trump’s science adviser, spoke of nuclear-powered rockets that would more effectively propel people through the solar system.
Elaine Chao, Secretary of Transportation, announced the publication of 580 pages of simplified regulations proposed for the launch and re-entry of spacecraft, a key concern of rocket companies like SpaceX.