In the nearly five months that have since passed since Vice President Mike Pence directed NASA to return to the Moon by 2024, the space agency has made significant progress towards that goal.
During this time and under the leadership of administrator Jim Bridenstine, The agency has a contract for the elements of the Lunar Gateway, the small space station that wants to follow a distant orbit around the moon. NASA has thus begun to develop ideas for industry over their designs for a three-stage lunar lander, upon which construction could begin sometime in 2020.
These are big steps, and getting a big agency like NASA moving quickly is difficult. For all of this, however, there are storm clouds on the horizon. Most clearly, there is the matter of paying for the Artemis Program to put Humans on the Moon ̵
But there is another problem as well, which was highlighted at the National Space Council by Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the time University of Notre Dame. NASA is a very real risk of turning the artemis program into a repeat of the Apollo Program-a flags-and-footprints sprint back to the moon with no follow-through in the form of a lunar base or a sustained presence in deep space.
A stepping stone?
"To look forward to the moon, we need to learn from the past," Prof. Neal said. "The Apollo program is a monumental achievement." However, Apollo has not talked about human space exploration because of the lack of knowledge. "
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has talked about building a "sustainable" 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 be on the moon, but this time to stay.
"American astronauts to the moon, establish a permanent base
Since that time, however, President Trump has said he is on multiple occasions that he is more interested in human beings "planting a flag" on Mars than returning to the moon. He has been questioning the moon entirely.
In response to this, Bridenstine has spoken about the value of the moon as a permanent base for human exploration. Instead, he speaks of it as a "proving ground" or "stepping stone" on the pathway to Mars.
Bridenstine and Pence sat side by side Tuesday on the Dais as Professor Neal explained that this approach devalued the Moon and threatened to undermine NASA's efforts to return people to deep space. "The moon has been interpreted, at least by some, as a stepping stone or a box to check on the way to Mars," Neal said.
Such a viewpoint ignores the intrinsic value of lunar resources, Neal said, in the form of water ice at the poles, as well as the lunar soil which can be broken into oxygen, titanium, silicates and more. Checking history
The reality is that, even with a healthy budget increase, NASA can barely afford a human landing program on the Moon in the 2020s-at least using its space launch system. Rocket and usual ways of doing business.
Talk of Mars is historically unsupportable with current budgets or NASA's existing technology. (As just one example, NASA at best can build one SLS rocket a year, and a single human mission to Mars would require six to eight SLS rocket launches). Past efforts to go to the Moon, Mars, or both have all ended in cancellation. Moon-to-Mars exploration plan now, NASA's administration seems to be moving from the edge of the impossible to the impossible.
But that has not stopped the White House from a march towards Mars. At the end of Tuesday's meeting, Vice President of Pence directed Bridenstine to return with timelines for human landings on the Moon, as well as for human missions to Mars. "We are setting specific timelines for the administrator in the next 60 days … for the submission of a plan for sustainable lunar surface exploration and the development of crewed missions to Mars," Pence said.