In 1966, the United States spent $5.9 billion on space exploration. In today’s dollars, that’s over $44 billion, or close to five percent of the federal budget. The space race with Russia to be the first country on the moon, a solar echo of the Cold War, drove government spending on NASA to levels it hasn’t seen since and probably never will reach again.
But for all his Orwellian interference with government science and research into climate change, President Trump seems to be a fan of outer space. Earlier this year he authorized the creation of a new division of the Air Force called the United States Space Force, even releasing a vintage tee on his campaign store – perfect for the discerning MAGA hipster who liked red hats before they were cool.
Merchandising aside, Trump has also supported space by announcing an extra $1.6 billion in the proposed 2020 budget for NASA activities, with the goal of returning America to the moon by 2024. The extra money would go a long way towards establishing the technical foundation for exploration of the moon, which Trump oddly categorized as “a part of Mars” in an opaque June tweet that suggested a preference for NASA to emphasize the Red Planet. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine called the $1.6 billion boost a “down payment” that “gets us out of the gate in a very strong fashion.” The new moon initiative is codenamed Artemis, a double-entendre that represents both the twin sister of the Greek god Apollo, namesake of the original moon missions, and the program’s intention to put the first female on the lunar surface.
Despite the positive press and public goodwill that the new moon mission stands to generate, critics say it will require exponentially more money than current levels of funding – dollars that are not likely to materialize in the current political climate, especially considering the controversy over their proposed source.
Moon Technology for the 21st Century
Bridenstine has spoken publicly about the importance of private partnerships for getting back to the moon. Of the extra money earmarked for NASA in 2020, about $1 billion is set to be spent on a lunar lander developed in partnership with American aerospace companies. Three companies have already been awarded preliminary contracts totaling over a quarter of a billion dollars. Strategic documents on the administration’s website show that another $651 million will be invested in developing the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s update to the Space Shuttle, and Orion, the spacecraft that astronauts will use to travel beyond Earth’s orbit.
The other big piece of the puzzle is the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway (LOPG), more commonly referred to as the lunar gateway. Defined by NASA as an “orbital outpost,” the LOPG is intended to be a base from which the administration can dock and refuel spacecraft, collect and analyze samples all while providing temporary habitation for astronauts. In May, the Colorado-based Maxar Technologies was awarded a contract to develop power, propulsion and communications technologies for the LOPG, which is “targeted to launch in 2022.” That timeframe was provided by Cheryl Warner, lead public affairs officer of NASA’s Moon to Mars program. DOPE got in touch with Warner to learn more about what this technology entails and how her administration plans to handle an ambitious shortening of its deadline.
“We’ve expedited a number of procurement activities to meet this challenge, and continue to make progress every day,” she says. “We’re working with American companies on designing, studying and soon, developing a new human landing system staged at the Gateway for expeditions to the lunar surface.”
While Warner admitted that additional funding would be required throughout the next decade, she seemed optimistic, noting, “a refined estimate will be submitted as part of the fiscal year 2021 President’s budget request.” NASA is awaiting the estimate.
She also told us that while American leadership is at the forefront of the new mission to the moon, there is plenty of room for collaboration with other countries. “ESA [European Space Agency] is providing the service module for our new deep space crew capsule, Orion, and the CSA [Canadian Space Agency] is the first to formally commit to building the Gateway with us in lunar orbit.”
Budget Concerns May Abort the Mission
For all the optimism and tangible signs of progress NASA has made on the new space race, much uncertainty remains to be cleared up before we can set foot on the moon again. In the spring, media outlets reported that NASA insiders were telling the White House to expect a $6 to $8 billion annual price tag for the new moon program. Bridenstine shot down those rumors, but other experts have predicted the cost could be as high as $25 billion per year.
Keeping costs down is one thing, but getting a Democrat-led House and a GOP-controlled Senate to agree to cover those costs may be an even bigger struggle. A May feature by “The New York Times” science reporter Kenneth Chang called it “unlikely” for astronauts to return to the moon in 2024. Much of the problem stems from the Trump administration’s proposed source for NASA’s $1.6 billion windfall: Pell Grants, the federal program that provides scholarship money to low-income students. While the Pell program is currently running at an $8 billion surplus, reporting by VICE News indicates that if Trump’s proposed 2020 budget were enacted, including extra funding for NASA, the Federal Pell Grant program would be crippled and need $1 billion in federal money to survive past 2021.
In an era when student loan debt is now over $1.5 trillion, and the GOP’s sweeping tax cuts have already cost the government nearly $2 trillion, many lawmakers on the left don’t like the optics of taking money away from poorer college students to fund a literal moonshot. Critics also point out that NASA projects have a history of delays and cost overruns. In 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that NASA’s major human and robotics programs had an average delay of 12 months and a cost growth of 18.8 percent.
“If President Trump wants to invest in NASA, he should support bipartisan efforts to raise the spending caps to pay for it,” said Sen. Patty Murray (WA) the chief Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee who called Trump’s proposed budget “dead on arrival.” Presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted that the White House plan to slash Pell Grants was “backwards.” Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee who sits on the House’s Science, Space and Technology committee, tweeted that he supports “restoring funding to @NASA, but that cannot come at the expense of low-income students. Raiding Pell Grant funds to boost #NASA’s budget is foolish.”
Compounding all the uncertainty, arguably the program’s most important proponent – President Trump – will face a competitive election next fall. A Democratic president taking office in 2021 may have different views on space exploration goals. Even if the 2024 moon landing never happens, the proposed timeline could still offer a starting point for negotiations to give NASA more money than it’s had in some lean years earlier in this decade.
And if all else fails, at least you can still rock your Space Force shirt.