Lightfoot: First Crew Return to Lunar Surface Towards End of Next Decade

Lightfoot: First Crew Return to Lunar Surface Towards End of Next Decade

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said today that the return of humans to the lunar surface probably will take place in the “latter part of the decade,” referring to the 2020s.  Speaking to the Space Transportation Association about NASA’s FY2019 budget request, he did not provide many details of the path between now and then, but conveyed optimism about all that can be accomplished with the budget request just sent to Congress.  It proposes $19.9 billion for the agency, close to its current funding level, dropping to $19.6 billion each year for FY2020-2023.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot. Credit: NASA.

Lightfoot spoke at a breakfast meeting of the STA on Capitol Hill just before embarking on a trip to Kennedy Space Center (KSC) where the White House National Space Council will meet tomorrow morning.  The Space Council’s meeting, “Moon, Mars, and Worlds Beyond: Winning the Next Frontier,” reportedly will focus on regulatory reform for commercial space activities.  It begins at 10:00 am ET and will be broadcast on NASA TV and livestreamed at NASA Live (

As of 10:30 pm ET, the White House still had not released the agenda or list of speakers for the meeting, although participants are already at the KSC Visitors Center this evening enjoying a reception sponsored by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Aerospace Industries Association, and Space Florida.

The Trump Administration’s budget request puts forward a plan to transition away from the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025 and return humans to the lunar surface and someday go to Mars.  Lightfoot told NASA employees the day the budget was released that it puts NASA “on a path to return to the Moon with an eye towards Mars.”

The plan relies not only on NASA’s own activities, but commercial and international partnerships.

The budget request funds two new commercial initiatives.  One would help companies that are willing to build facilities in low Earth orbit (LEO) to serve NASA and other users once the ISS is terminated.  The Commercial LEO Development budget line item would provide $150 million in FY2019 and a total of $900 million over 5 years “for NASA to assist industry in the near term to develop a commercial low Earth orbit presence, with and without crews.”

The other is the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program in the Science Mission Directorate’s planetary science division budget. Funded at $218 million for FY2019 and each of the next four years, it will “support innovative approaches to achieve human and science exploration goals by funding contracts for commercial transportation services and the development of small rovers and instrument [sic] to meet lunar science and exploration goals.”

As for international partners, Lightfoot is headed to Japan next week to participate in the second ministerial-level International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF2).  The first was held in Washington, DC in 2014.   He said today that he will be meeting with NASA’s partners in the ISS program (Japan, Canada, Europe and Russia) and others to discuss future human space cooperation.

The potential commercial and international partnerships are in addition to NASA’s own efforts — building the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, and associated Exploration Ground Systems.  The first SLS/Orion flight, without a crew, is now expected in 2020.   NASA announced last fall that it would slip from November 2018 to December 2019 or June 2020.  The budget request says 2020. That is Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1).  EM-2, the first SLS/Orion mission with a crew, is slated for 2023.  NASA had been working toward 2021, but April 2023 is the official date it gave Congress when the program passed a critical milestone in 2015.

NASA will build a “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway” (LOP-G, previously called a Deep Space Gateway) in lunar orbit where astronauts will transit between Earth and the lunar surface.

Today, Lightfoot said that by 2030 there will be commercial capabilities “live and thriving” in LEO — a “total commercial environment,” and at the Moon there will be a “constant set of flights” back and forth between the platform and the lunar surface.  Asked when the first return to the lunar surface would occur, he replied “the latter part of the decade.”  He was also asked whether the first crew would be NASA, commercial and/or international astronauts.  He said “yes.”

NASA’s budget documentation includes the following chart of “notional launches” that shows plans for small, mid-sized and large commercial robotic landers that would lead “toward human-rated lander.”  It is not clear if the human-rated lander is envisioned as being provided by a government (U.S. or other) or the commercial sector.

Excerpt from NASA presentation on its FY2019 budget request. [] SMD is the Science Mission Directorate. HEO is the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.