Déjà vu as space policy

Like President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, NASA is being directed to return to the Moon, but on a much faster timescale. (credit: White House)

Moving out of low Earth orbit remains a human space exploration quest that remains just out of touch for reasons of policy, capability, and cost. For the United States, this hiatus has become a source of dismay given that 50 years ago the first human, an American, set foot on the lunar surface. Despite this exploit, the United States has not returned to the Moon or any other celestial body. Since at least the George H.W. Bush Administration this has been an aspiration at least rhetorically, one that has waxed and waned over the years.

The first Bush presidency saw the aborted Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), proposed in 1989 on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. Struggles with the space station consumed the Clinton years, although the dream was always to move outward from that “base camp to the stars.” In the George W. Bush Administration, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster became the jumping-off point for a bold new program called the Vision for Space Exploration, which became embodied in the Constellation Program. That effort ended in 2011 when the Obama Administration announced a new endeavor focused on long-duration missions, location undetermined but with Mars the long-term goal. This effort focused on privatizing low Earth orbit access to the International Space Station (ISS) and missions possibly to an asteroid first and then outward.

Why the Moon now

The Trump Administration settled the question of whether the Moon should be the initial goal for NASA’s exploration effort, followed at some point on to Mars. NASA’s progress toward returning to the Moon, though, has been faltering with delays in the development of the Space Launch System (SLS). Suggestions have been made to move forward using commercial options to the SLS, especially the SpaceX BFR, now renamed Starship, which has a larger payload capability than any existing vehicle. At this early point, NASA is pushing to accelerate development of the SLS to keep the first flight scheduled for 2020. Whether NASA can make the 2020 date is unclear since, prior to the announcement, there was assumed to be further delays in SLS development.

What is playing out is a dance between operational reality and political reality. The Trump Administration appears to desire a highly visible sign of its ability to get things done, both in terms of domestic and international politics. In that sense, Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement was an echo of President Kennedy’s 1961 announcement of the Apollo program. Both came after a visible space feat by a rival, the Soviet Union then and China now. China’s successful mission, landing a rover on the far side of the Moon, struck a chord internationally in part because the US and Russia had already been to the Moon, but never attempted a landing on the far side. For the United States, that appeared to be a challenge which in some minds must be met if the US was to sustain its leading role globally.

The difference is that the Apollo program announcement came with funding and a sense of urgency, which is more difficult to muster today. Members of Congress and others have attempted to foster a space race mentality with regards to the Chinese but that has not drawn much support outside some space circles. Given the economic competition that President Trump sees with regards to China, the space challenge becomes another venue for competition, peaceful but with national security overtones. The crunch will come in gaining congressional support outside the usual circles that support a national space program: most in Congress are vaguely supportive but not as a priority. A 2025 lunar landing will require a significant budget increase over several years, one lacking in the fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, which was nearly $500 million below what Congress provided for 2019.

The question for more money raises, for other parts of NASA, an image of the “bad old days” when other accounts were raided for funds to complete space shuttle development. Those deviations were so severe that James van Allen wrote a famous article in Scientific American lamenting what he called the “Slaughter of the innocents,” the decimation of the space science budgets so the shuttle could fly. Space scientists may be hearing footsteps again when the human spaceflight community comes calling for money (see “Reality bites: the future of the American human spaceflight endeavor”, The Space Review, March 1, 2010.)

There are several unanswered questions about this new effort, but two immediately come to mind. One, what is the long-term plan once the US returns to the lunar surface? The proposed acceleration of the program is a politically driven choice like Apollo and, like that endeavor, may suffer the same fate. Once the political impetus runs down, what keeps the program going? The obvious answer is the private sector, which has grown immensely. But then the question will be how much are those actors prepared to do without any significant government support. This will be the opportunity for NewSpace proponents to step up and deliver on their long-expressed aspirations.

Second, this rush to reach the lunar surface holds the prospects for disaster in terms of flight failures. Most have forgotten the Apollo 1 pad fire, a product of human error and overconfidence. That event led to a stand down, but the program was able to move forward quickly to a successful landing in July 1969. After two shuttle accidents, the ability of NASA to move quickly after an incident will be severely challenged, especially if private sector flight options appear feasible. Space is dangerous and the pressure to succeed leads to unanticipated difficulties.

For NASA, this may be a situation where the gamble is worth the risk, but failure will likely cripple the agency for a generation, if not kill it. “Three strikes and you’re out” is a baseball term but can be applied to government agencies also when they fail in their fundamental job, space exploration in this case. Hopefully, none of this happens but the future is unknowable. I assume the Chinese wish for NASA is that it “lives in interesting times.”

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