Trump Changes Course on NASA’s Moon Plans

Trump Changes Course on NASA’s Moon Plans

President Trump threw the space community into a tizzy this afternoon by demanding to know why NASA is intent on talking about sending people to the Moon, a feat achieved 50 years ago. He wants to focus on Mars, defense, and science instead. The abrupt change of heart comes just 25 days after he sent a budget amendment to Congress asking for an additional $1.6 billion in FY2020 to get the Artemis Moon-by-2024 program underway and tweeted that he was “restoring NASA to greatness” by going back to the Moon and to Mars.

The President’s apparent rebuke of his own plan came as quite a jolt.

A White House official insisted late this afternoon that “Our Administration’s goal has always been to get to Mars. We have asked Congress for additional resources to get to the Moon by 2024, which will enable us to get to Mars roughly a decade after creating a sustainable presence on the lunar surface. Under POTUS, America is leading again in space.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine also sought to portray it favorably.

However, Trump’s own words raise doubts about his commitment to the Moon part of the program.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, made that point in a comment to this evening.

“The House Science Committee has been emphasizing the need for a human exploration roadmap, so we can all be on the same page about where we’re going and what we’re doing in exploring deep space with humans.  Unfortunately, this tweet simply reinforces my sense that the Administration does not fully support its own Moon initiative.” — Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

Trump actually sounded a bit like President Barack Obama in his tweet.  On April 15, 2010, Obama announced that NASA would focus on sending people to Mars, not the Moon, because: “We’ve been there before…. There’s a lot more of space to explore.”

One of Trump’s first space policy actions, however, was to reverse Obama’s plan by restoring the George W. Bush Administration’s goal of putting astronauts back on the Moon before going to Mars.  The December 2017 Space Policy Directive-1 specifically directed that the United States “lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”

NASA has been executing SPD-1 ever since and less than three months ago, on March 26, was further directed by Vice President Mike Pence to accelerate its plans and get “the next man and the first woman” on the Moon by 2024.  NASA has named the program Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.

Speculation in the Twitterverse about what prompted today’s presidential tweet ranged from Trump having listened to a segment on Fox News where anchor Neil Cavuto asked NASA CFO Jeff DeWit why we haven’t gotten further in the past 50 years, or heard criticism yesterday by Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins that Trump may not know there is a planet Mars (Collins wants to go to Mars and sees no need to return to the Moon), or had conversations with Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney who is thought to oppose the Moon spending.

Whatever the motivation, it underscores a point made often by Bridenstine that it is political risk, not technical risk, that poses the greatest threat to long term human space exploration plans.  He raises it in the context of why the White House directed NASA to get astronauts on the Moon by 2024 — so it would happen while Trump is still president, assuming he is reelected.

Trump’s tweet today, however, shows that political risk can exist within the same president’s term, not just when a new president is sworn in.

Trump’s wording in the tweet that the Moon is part of Mars has been the subject of some ridicule on Twitter, but its meaning could be construed that trips to the Moon are part of the journey to Mars, which is how NASA portrays the “Moon to Mars” effort.  If that is what Trump meant, however, it seems to conflict with the earlier part of the tweet complaining that NASA talks too much about the Moon.

On March 26, Pence asserted that “on the President’s behalf” he was announcing that “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.”  That has never been codified in writing, however, like the four Space Policy Directives Trump has signed.

In fact, the only other statement Trump has made about the Moon-by-2024 plan was the tweet he issued when he submitted the budget amendment on May 13:  “Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars. I am updating my budget to include an additional $1.6 billion so that we can return to Space in a BIG WAY!”

The bottom line is that the President’s position on the Moon program is decidedly unclear, which could affect how Congress responds to the request for $1.6 billion more in FY2020.  The House Appropriations Committee completely ignored that request.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted yet.

All of this drama is overshadowing the news that NASA wanted in the headlines today, its new commercial use policy for the International Space Station (ISS).  That was rolled out at NASDAQ in New York City this morning and was the reason DeWit was being interviewed on Fox News.

In short, NASA is making more ISS resources available to the commercial sector and has released a pricing policy for activities such as tourist flights to the ISS.

A number of space tourists have already visited ISS, but always sponsored by Russia.  NASA has been a reluctant participant in those activities, but soon the U.S. commercial crew systems being built by SpaceX and Boeing will be flying and one of their potential revenue streams is space tourism.  Anyone who wants to go will have to make transportation arrangements with those companies, but now they know how much NASA will charge to use NASA’s ISS resources such as life support, food and communications equipment:  approximately $35,000 per day.

This article was updated with the quotes from the White House official and Rep. Johnson and Bridenstine’s tweet.

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