This article was originally published in the SpaceNews magazine issue of April 9, 2018.
The Trump administration has developed a new civil space policy. The announcement and the first meeting of the newly assembled National Space Council emphasized two new directions and one old one: 1. Human spaceflight should be directed to the moon; 2. The direct state funding for the International Space Station (ISS) should be discontinued after 2024; and 3. The new Space Launch System (SLS) is to be built.
Replacing the withdrawal of the ISS in 2024 with the retreat of the Space Shuttle in 2010, one has pretty much the "Back to the Moon" space policy of the George W. Bush administration. At that time, the shuttle funding was set to finance the development of a heavy rocket. We know how that went. If these three guidelines are followed, it will probably lead to an end to human spaceflight by the United States ̵
Let's examine these guidelines:
1. Back to & # 39; back to the Moon & # 39 ;: This is the third presidential statement for this goal , The previous two failed due to lack of financial support and lack of political justification. These go hand in hand. This time, we actually have less financial obligations to the Moon, including a plan to land the people there. The fact that the goal lacks a political justification is shown when the moon was barely mentioned at the last session of the National Space Council. The management proposal makes the Deep Space Gateway – initiated by the Obama administration as a gateway to the solar system, a destination in itself – a kind of mini-space station or platform around the moon. The only rationale that has been offered so far is the support of Robo Landers (who pretend to be private missions) or human missions from other nations. Is this a sustainable justification for a very expensive space flight program? With the recent US commitment to reducing government funding and track record of lunar initiatives, other nations – Europeans, Russia, India, and even Japan – could find an alternative and more reliable guide to the moon in China.
2. End of direct state support for the ISS: The space station is to be made available for commercial operation and support. What is the trade? The main mission of the aging space station will soon be maintenance and repair. Is it conceivable that tourists (not more than three) pay for it? Space research is good, but it has resisted any commercialization or privatization. Visual travel to space is much cheaper provided by robotic spacecraft operating in different forms of virtual reality from the ground up.
3. The Space Launch System: With the abandonment of the Mars Goal and the initial success of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, efforts must be made to find the niche market that SLS will meet. Is it likely that NASA will raise enough budget over the next five years to cover both the costs of developing SLS and building and colonizing the Deep Space Gateway? The gateway infrastructure is likely to be delayed, further reducing the addressable market for the SLS. The NASA budget proposed by the Trump administration does not provide for an increase in the gateway and proposes new investment only for the commercial sector (one of the few Trump-approved Obama policies). But these commercial space investments compete much more with the SLS than they create a new market for it.
In short, we have a new human space program based on three weak, artificial legs. Humans would limp badly in the space race between humans and robots. Robotic lunar and marsupial missions will make progress, and missions seeking vital signs on astrobiological targets (Mars, the ocean worlds of the outer solar system and exoplanets) will dominate the exploration interest. In the near future, manned spaceflight will be of particular interest to those seeking commercial or private access to space. That is, it will be limited to Earth orbit, perhaps with an ill-advised trial around the Moon.
This is a bad sign for the government program, and I fear that the public interest will disappear along with its lack of reason and lack of vision. Maybe that's okay – it did not matter much that the Vikings were the first Europeans to make it to the Western Hemisphere, or that a Norwegian was first at the South Pole. Human exploration of other worlds does not have to be American just because we were the first. But it's a shame to give it up or let it die off in another unsustainable endeavor of our industry.
Louis Friedman is the emeritus co-founder and CEO of the Planetary Society.