NASA has struggled for decades with strategic uncertainty, and there's nothing like a partisan transition in the White House to discombobulate everyone. There will surely be a new administrator, and new ambitions, and disfavored programs, with associated budget cuts (Earth Science is a likely target).
Right this minute, though, no one seems to know what's going to happen with America's civilian space agency. The chaotic Trump transition operation has yet to send a delegation to NASA headquarters. NASA's in-house transition team is standing by, and you can imagine that people are getting a bit jittery. There are deadlines to meet. Everything's in a holding pattern.
In the spirit of promiscuous speculation, we will float this notion: The moon is back!
With Donald Trump as president-elect, moon-colony-loving Newt Gingrich hovering close at hand, and Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, NASA may soon be told to get ready to do what it already did back in the 1960s and '70s — put people on the moon, this time to stay.
There's a saying: The moon is a red destination, an asteroid is a blue destination.
“It is very plausible to speculate that the new administration will insert a mission to the lunar surface, probably international in character, as a step on the way to Mars,” John Logsdon, the dean of space policy analysts, told The Washington Post. “Politically, most of the other countries of the world have identified the moon as an interesting destination, and they don’t really have the capabilities to talk about sending people to Mars. If we want to assert international leadership, we would take a position in leading a coalition to return to the moon.” This is a competitive field. Europe, Japan, Russia and China have all expressed interest in crewed missions to the lunar surface sometime in the next two decades.
One of the people mentioned in news reports as a potential NASA administrator is Rep. James Bridenstine, Republican from Oklahoma, who earlier this year drafted legislation he calls the American Space Renaissance Act. He's called for a return to the moon as part of sweeping reforms at NASA. Bridenstine has also been mentioned as a potential secretary of the Air Force. In a written statement released by his press office, Bridenstine said: “At this point, it is speculation as far as I know.”
Eric Berger at Ars Technica has more on the insider-outsider possibilities for the top NASA job. Keith Cowing at NASAWatch also weighs in with an online game to guess the next NASA chief. Bridenstine would be an outsider, but many Republicans might prefer Scott Pace, a former NASA political appointee under President George W. Bush. Pace succeeded Logsdon as director of George Washington University Space Policy Institute. In a radio interview on the Diane Rehm Show a while back, Pace advocated a return to the moon:
[T]he reason for that is not simply because I have a fondness for lunar science but because I think it could meet an important international objective, which is bringing other countries along with us, particularly emerging space powers, such as India and — I'll also say it — China, that NASA can and should be a foreign policy tool of the United States. And I think a human return to the moon poses some opportunities for international outreach in ways that asteroid or Mars missions right now cannot.
Some boilerplate background: During the Cold War space race, NASA's Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 succeeded in putting the first men on the moon. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and then 10 more American astronauts left boot prints in lunar regolith across six Apollo missions, the last in 1972. No human being has been beyond low Earth orbit since that final moonshot.
NASA now says it is on a “Journey to Mars,” though this is more of a branding exercise for a suite of loosely connected enterprises than a fully integrated and funded program. The agency is building a new, heavy-lift rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), and a new crew capsule, Orion, both of which could be part of a Mars-mission architecture. President Obama in a recent op-ed reiterated NASA's stated goal of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s. Agency officials envision an orbital mission first. (SpaceX has its own much more ambitious, but not overwhelmingly plausible, plans for a Mars colony.)
Meanwhile, the moon is still right there, and many people find it still attractive as a target for exploration. George W. Bush vowed to go back to the moon, and his administration put together a program, Constellation, that foresaw another moon landing in 2020. Obama killed Constellation, saying been there, done that. Congress, however, kept elements of the Constellation package — that big rocket, that new capsule — and so billions of dollars are being spent on hardware that should be ready for launch in the next couple of years. Where to go?
Obama's team decided that NASA should visit an asteroid in its natural orbit. That proved harder than expected, so the agency shifted gears, saying it would capture an asteroid and haul it back to lunar orbit. The latest plan is to wrench a boulder off a known asteroid. House Republicans hate the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and have language in an appropriations bill that would prevent NASA from spending any money on such a mission. Jeff Foust on Spacenews.com reports that NASA officials continue to push for ARM funding as a necessary element of long-term Mars exploration. [Update: Casey Dreier of The Planetary Society writes of ARM, "I predict this mission is almost certainly over.” See also Nadia Drake's take on all this at National Geographic.]
Here's the key factoid: Because Congress preserved elements of Constellation, it could be revived under a new administration. NASA has the SLS and the Orion, and to get to the surface of the moon it would just need a lunar lander, maybe paid for, at least partially, by international partners. And NASA has already been talking about missions in orbit around the moon in the 2020s. The veterans who run human spaceflight at NASA put themselves in a good position to re-pivot to the moon if that became politically mandated.
NASA headquarters has been preparing for the transition for months, but the Trump team has gone through upheaval, with Chris Christie and his folks ousted. It appears Trump's NASA transition efforts are being led by Mark Albrecht, who was associated with the first President Bush's ill-fated Space Exploration Initiative of 1989 (fleets of spaceships, a moon base, Mars, the whole kit and kaboodle, shot down when rumors spread that it would cost a gazillion dollars).
And then there's Gingrich. He's made a fortune since leaving elected office and isn't going to take a pay cut to be in the new administration, but he's got Trump's ear and is a stalwart moon guy. Recall that when he ran for president four years ago, and was riding high in the polls in advance of the Florida primary, he used his moment in the spotlight to make a stemwinder of a speech about the need to establish a permanent moon colony and explore the solar system.
He mentioned one of his earliest ideas: That when at least 13,000 people live on the moon, they could petition to have statehood. (To which the people of the District of Columbia might well say: Get in line.)
Further Reading: Check out our series of stories on NASA and the future of space exploration, "Destination Unknown.”