A new initiative to explore the moon started in 2017 when President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, instructing NASA to return humans to the moon with the help of currently existing programs and industry partners. Earlier this year, NASA announced that it aimed to put humans back on the surface of the moon by 2028. This already ambitious timetable was accelerated when NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine claimed that NASA would be able to put humans on the moon by 2024.
“Putting humans on the moon in 2024 is not an America alone effort. We need all of our international partners. In fact, none of us can do what we want alone,” Bridenstine said at the recent 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. NASA needs its international partners to take up some of the financial burden of the lunar orbiting gateway, and with the new 2024 goal, Bridenstine went on to ask international partners to “step up a little bit more.”
NASA has also been relying on industry partners like Lockheed Martin to build the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket which, once complete, will be the most powerful rocket ever built. This launch platform will be the foundation of major aspects of NASA’s goal to put a permanent base on and around the moon.
The space agency has had to push back the launch date for the SLS from 2018 to the end of 2020, assuming there aren’t any future delays. On top of delays and cost overruns, the White House’s 2020 budget proposal that was sent to Congress would introduce a 17.4 % cut to the SLS and deep space exploration programs. Fortunately, NASA is attempting to get an amendment to the budget proposal because it didn’t take into account the 2024 goal. This doesn’t mean the SLS is in the clear yet either. If the SLS isn’t able to perform the inaugural launch of Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in 2020-21, NASA said they would consider commercial options such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.
“We want many different participants, both commercially and internationally,” Bridenstine said. “The purpose of the open architecture is to enable us to get to more parts of the moon than we’ve ever been able to get to before.”
Making outer space and the moa high priority is something that hasn’t been seen since the end of the Apollo moon missions in the 1970s. The rhetoric surrounding the recent push to establish the US an international space power is mainly coming from Vice President Mike Pence and members within the Trump Administration.
Pence stated at the March National Space Council meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, that the US was in “new space race” with the two other space powers— China and Russia. “Make no mistake about it — we’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” Pence said. Pence’s claims differ from Administrator Bridenstine’s, who has previously denied that the US was in a 21st-century space race.
While Pence and the Trump Administration are pushing full steam ahead, NASA is now left scurrying to find ways to meet the new goal. Bridenstine said at an April 1 NASA town hall meeting that, “we’re going to need additional [funding]. I don’t think anybody can take this level of commitment seriously unless there are additional [funds].”
NASA has a complicated history of budget cuts and shifting agency direction, and a successful 2024 moon mission now depends on politics and lawmakers coming together to make it happen.