Space Council’s Moon to Mars Development Strategy – UPDATED

Space Council’s Moon to Mars Development Strategy – UPDATED

The White House National Space Council issued a report today laying out its rationale for deep space human exploration. A major theme is that human space exploration requires a whole-of-government approach involving not just NASA, but a host of other agencies from the National Institutes of Health to the Department of Homeland Security.

Vice President Mike Pence chairs the multi-agency National Space Council.  At its August 2019 meeting, it requested the Space Council’s staff, led by Scott Pace, Deputy Assistant to the President, to write a “Moon to Mars Development Strategy” in consultation with the Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group (UAG).

The membership of the UAG was just updated last month, growing from 27 to 28 outside experts. Adm. Jim Ellis (Ret.) remains chairman. It next meets on July 30.

The Trump Administration has issued four Space Policy Directives (SPDs), two space-related Executive Orders, and a National Space Strategy so far. Pace said in May that the Council is working on a complete update of the 2010 National Space Policy issued by President Obama as well. To date, the Trump Administration has changed only two sentences in that policy, reinstating the Moon as a destination for human spaceflight, replacing President Obama’s plan to use an asteroid as a steppingstone to Mars instead.

Indeed, returning astronauts to the Moon and going on to Mars is a cornerstone of Trump’s space policy. Today’s document, A New Era for Deep Space Exploration and Development, lays out a strategy to accomplish that.

Trump’s quest for deep space human exploration is hardly new. The past 50 years since Apollo crews walked on the Moon have yielded bookshelves full of policies, strategies, and reports written by expert commissions, interest groups, and NASA itself.

John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University who wrote his first space policy book in 1970 about JFK’s decision to go to the Moon, told today that the new Space Council strategy is a “clearly articulated, thoughtful, and comprehensive approach to extending human presence and activity beyond Earth orbit.”

Logsdon has published three other books on space policy under the Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan Administrations, respectively, and is now writing another on the question of why astronauts have not returned to the Moon since the last Apollo mission in 1972.  He points out that all but one of the last five presidents have wanted to move humanity beyond low Earth orbit.

Four of the last five U.S. presidents over the last three decades have called for resuming deep space exploration; this strategy is a fully developed top-level plan to achieve that objective, somewhat akin to the 1986 National Commission on Space report.  — John Logsdon

The four are George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump.  The Clinton Administration was focused on building the International Space Station.

Logsdon sees little justification in the new strategy for the 2024 deadline announced by Pence in March 2019 to put astronauts back on the lunar surface — the Artemis program.  Still it does offer a “reasoned approach to making Artemis the start of permanent human movement into the solar system.”

The Space Council’s determination to move forward with international and commercial partners is evident in the new strategy, with the U.S. government in the lead, fending off “malign” competitors. “Although many countries may choose to operate in space, including potential adversaries, U.S. friends and allies should be able to rely on the abiding presence of the United States.”

That presence is not just about NASA. “Nearly every” government department and agency has “potential equities in the utilization and development of space. ” A whole-of-government approach is needed to develop the necessary capabilities and regulatory environment, and create international partnerships.

The success of American space exploration and development in this new era will require a whole-of-government approach. Five primary government roles are crucial to executing the vision described in this paper:
1) Promote a secure and predictable space environment for the long-term sustainability of space activities;
2) Support the development of commercial activity and industry in space;
3) Support research and development of new space technologies;
4) With commercial and international partners, create infrastructure needed for space exploration and development; and
5) Support advanced space research by public and private sector U.S. research communities.

Issued just four months before the November elections, this document could be the Trump Administration’s legacy or its call to arms in a second Trump term. “Sustainability” is another theme in the report, an apt word if a presidential transition takes place.

Still, a draft of the 2020 Democratic Party Platform supports sending Americans back to the Moon and on to Mars, albeit without a 2024 deadline for “boots on the Moon.” The two parties may not be as far apart on this issue as they are on others.  Logsdon, who is not working on either campaign, said this strategy, “with its most partisan elements toned down or removed, could even be embraced if Joe Biden is in the White House.”

The quintessential question, of course, which has doomed previous efforts, is where the money will come from especially in an era of epic deficits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Indeed, Linda Billings, who was a staff member of the National Commission on Space referenced by Logsdon and is now a consultant at the National Institute of Aerospace working with NASA’s astrobiology and planetary defense programs, calls the Trump plan unaffordable. In a July 27 blog post, she warns that the “U.S. economy, U.S. society will not miraculously recover from the pandemic and all the other serious problems plaguing out nation” and much rebuilding lies ahead. Human space exploration “contributes nothing to that enterprise, except perhaps employment (though likely not for all those displaced hotel and restaurant industry workers.)”  In short, it is “not what I’d call sustainable.”


Note 1: This article was updated July 27 with the quotes from Linda Billings.

Note 2: In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this article also was a staff member of the National Commission on Space.

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