In almost five months that have passed from Vice President Mike & # 39; a Pence & # 39; a, who instructed NASA to bring people back to the moon by 2024, the Space Agency has made significant progress towards this goal.
During this time, under the leadership of administrator Jim Bridenstine & # 39; a, the agency concluded contracts for both elements of Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will follow a distant orbit around the moon. NASA has also begun to seek industry ideas for their three-stage lunar lander projects, where construction could begin in 2020. The agency also asks for delivery of cargo to the moon.
These are big steps, and the quick move of a large agency like NASA is difficult. Still, there are storm clouds on the horizon. Apparently it is about paying for the Artemis program directed to the moon – the US House did not include the financing of these efforts in the initial budget for the financial year 2020, and the Senate has not yet drawn up the budget. If there is no additional funding, NASA cannot give industry funds the means to do the job.
But there is another problem that Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame at the National Space Council meeting on Tuesday, pointed out. NASA has a very real risk of transforming the Artemis Program into a repetition of the Apollo Program – traces of flags and feet run back to the moon without any further action in the form of a lunar base or permanent presence in space.
"To look at the moon, we must learn from the past," said prof. Neal. "The Apollo program was a huge achievement. However, Apollo showed us how to avoid space exploration because such a program based on international competition is not sustainable. "
From the beginning of his term, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine talked about building a "balanced" lunar program and going to the moon to stay. In his speech in March, Vice President Pence said the same. He wants NASA's next giant leap to the moon, but this time it will stay.
"Now it's time for us to make another" giant leap "and bring American astronauts to the moon, set up a permanent base there and develop technologies that will take American astronauts to Mars and beyond," said Pence.
Since then, however, President Trump has repeatedly said that he is more interested in the fact that people are "flagging" on Mars than returning to the moon. He publicly questioned Bridenstine about the need to go to the moon before Mars, and during the last space speeches he completely ignored the moon.
In response, Bridenstine turned away from talking about the value of the moon as a solid basis for human exploration. Instead, he speaks of it as a "testing ground" or "stepping stone" on the road to Mars.
Bridenstine and Pence sat side by side on Tuesday on the podium, when prof. Neal explained that this approach devalued the moon and threatened to undermine NASA's efforts to return people to space. "The moon has been interpreted, at least by some, as a stepping stone or a box to check on the way to Mars," said Neal.
This point of view ignores the internal value of lunar resources, said Neal, in the form of water ice at the poles, as well as lunar soil that can be broken down into oxygen, titanium, silicates and more. If NASA puts it aside and simply touches the moon on its way to Mars, what's the point of doing a pale repetition of the Apollo program?
The reality is that even with a healthy budget increase, NASA can't afford the moon landing program in 2020 – at least using the Space Launch System rocket and the usual ways of doing business, it seems. This is more than enough for a space agency that has not rejected man into space for 47 years.
Talk of Mars is historically unsupported with current budgets or existing NASA technology. (As just one example, NASA can at most build one SLS rocket per year, and a single human mission to Mars would require six to eight SLS rocket launches.) Earlier attempts to go to the Moon, Mars or both ended in cancellation. So speaking of the ubiquitous plan to explore the Moon on Mars, the NASA administration seems to be moving from the edge of what is possible to the kingdom of impossible.
But this did not stop the White House from marching towards Mars. At the end of Tuesday's meeting, Vice President Pence instructed Bridenstine to come back with a moon landing schedule, as well as human missions to Mars. "We set specific deadlines for the administrator for the next 60 days … to submit a plan for sustainable exploration of the moon's surface and the development of manned missions to Mars," said Pence.