Trump's Moonshot: The next giant jump or another empty promise?

Vice President Pence at the signing ceremony of the Space Policy Directive 4, which established the Space Force. (Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)

On the twentieth anniversary of the lunar landing of Apollo 11, President George H.W. Bush called for a return to the lunar surface, affirming in 1989 that "it is the destiny of humanity to strive, search and find".

Since then, other presidents have asked NASA to send astronauts to the moon or Mars with a growing rhetoric that was never matched by the resources or political resolution to make those promises come true.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, it is the turn of the Trump administration. Last month, Vice President Pence echoed John F. Kennedy's speech "because it's difficult," saying it's "time for us to do the next" giant jump "and direct NASA to make humans fall on the moon within five years "by any means necessary".

The announcement, which increased a lunar landing for at least four years, surprised many at NASA and left a fund-hungry agency for such missions with a severe badlash case, struggling to discover how it would meet the last White House. mandate within your reduced budget.

NASA officials also face a major test of the effectiveness of their agency: Is this another empty promise from a nostalgic administration for Apollo's triumph and looking to make a splash while in office, or can the NASA somehow carry out what would be a bold step? Time for the presidential election?

There are already indications that the White House plan is being executed with violent winds.

At a hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, criticized Pence's speech for lacking details about how NASA would accomplish what she called an "accelerated program" or what it would cost.

"We need specific details, not rhetoric," he said. "Because the rhetoric that is not backed by a concrete plan and the credible cost estimates is just hot air. And hot air can be useful in hot air balloons, but it will not take us to the Moon or Mars. "

Before Pence's speech, NASA hoped to take human beings to the moon by 2028, at the earliest. The White House budget request, launched a few weeks ago, was geared toward a lunar landing with a crew by the end of the next decade, which many in NASA's leadership considered a more reasonable goal. But the White House suddenly changed course and decided that the timeline was too long, and that it would be outside of Trump's second term, should he be re-elected.

Others, too, had been critical of the 2028 date, including former NASA administrator Michael Griffin, who paid a visit to the late moon "is not worthy to be at the table." Such a date does not prove that the United States is a leader in anything. "

The White House had made it clear to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in recent weeks that he wanted NASA to move faster and entrusted him to do so by 2024. He told administration officials he could do it. "They have been consistent in their desire to accelerate," he said in a brief interview after he testified before the congressional hearing on Tuesday.

But in a sign of the speed with which he has to turn, his testimony written for the audience quoted the old timeline, and promised to "land humans on the Moon within a decade," not in the five years he wanted to the White House.

During the hearing, however, it became clear that NASA is fighting to accelerate the mission to the Moon. Bridenstine said the plan was "in the process of change" and would require additional funding. He promised to return with an amendment to NASA's budget request later this month, but would not say how much more NASA would need.

"My concern is: What does the plan look like and what is the reality?" Representative Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), Chair of the space subcommittee, said in an interview. She said she was also concerned that "the pressure of the schedule does not exceed safety, and the real problems we're going to have to address."

The main technical challenges are also to come. The rocket that NASA plans to use to launch astronauts to the moon is far behind, and so above the budget, that last month, Bridenstine threatened to leave it on its first mission in favor of commercial rockets.

That caused a fury in Congress, especially on the part of Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), Chairman of the appropriations committee, and the rest of the Alabama delegation, where the NASA program office for the Rocket, known as Space Launch System (SLS), is largely based.

Bridenstine stepped back quickly, re-engaging with SLS as the best option, and said Boeing, the rocket's prime contractor, would seek to drastically accelerate development.

It is not just the rocket that needs to get back on track. Current plans for NASA's lunar mission require the construction of a station that would orbit the moon permanently. The astronauts would stop at the station, known as the Gateway, before traveling on the special landing modules to the lunar surface, an ambitious technological advance that did not exist when the Apollo astronauts landed there half a century after a trip direct three days.

The problem for NASA is that none of this architecture has been built or is even under contract. And without a budget or guarantees from Congress that the program would be funded, many fear that the White House is preparing the agency for another disappointment.

"At first glance, it seems to be what we've gone through before, with presidents delivering a bold speech without being backed by resources," said Wayne Hale, a former director of NASA's space shuttle program who now serves as a consultant. . "Where are the resources? We are waiting to see what is proposed in the budget. "

Todd Harrison, a defense and space badyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that now that the Trump administration has put its stamp on the program, other White Houses can dismiss it quickly.

"Before you know it, there will be a change in administration, and a new NASA administrator will come and say:" Whatever these guys are doing is wrong. " That's what the history of the last 30 years has told us, "he said.

There is also a deep skepticism within NASA. To mitigate the concerns, Bridenstine organized a town hall on Monday and answered employee questions. One mentioned how the different presidents continue to point out to NASA the different missions: the moon, then Mars and then the moon, while none succeeds.

"What steps do you plan to take to reduce the programmatic badlash that prevents us from actually meeting any of these big plans?" Asked one employee.

Others, however, find that the new sense of urgency revitalizes, and just what an aging bureaucracy like NASA needs. Trump reconstituted the National Space Council to establish the US space policy. UU., And has promoted the establishment of a Space Force, a new military branch dedicated to helping the US. UU To fight opponents in space.

Pence has spent more time in space than any other senior White House official since the Kennedy administration. His pbadion is real, the badociates have said, and so is his belief that the agency can take humans to the moon by 2024.

In his March 26 speech, Pence launched the mission as part of a new space race against superpowers such as China and Russia, competing for water at the Moon's south pole, which could be used not only to sustain human life but also as rocket fuel. to push further into the solar system. Water, as many have said, is the oil of the solar system.

"It's not just competition against our opponents," said Pence. "We are also competing against our worst enemy: complacency."

Over the years, critics have criticized NASA for having lost the audacity that defined it during its early days, buffered by a pair of space shuttle disasters that killed 14 astronauts. In 1969, NASA sent men to the moon, 250,000 miles away. Today, your astronauts go to the International Space Station, 250 miles away. And because NASA has not had the ability to transport humans into space since the nation's space shuttle fleet retreated in 2011, its astronauts fly on Russian rockets at a cost of more than $ 80 million per seat.

China, meanwhile, has emerged as a rival in space. Earlier this year, it became the first nation to land a spaceship on the other side of the moon. He plans to send another unmanned mission to the moon later this year. In the process, said Pence in his speech, China has "revealed its ambition to take advantage of the strategic lunar terrain and become the world's leading space nation."

Part of what is driving the push to the moon is an unproven dream that a lucrative business could be built by mining precious metals just below its surface. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said that lunar mining could help fuel a trillion-dollar space economy.

Homer Hickam, the longtime NASA author and engineer who serves as advisor to the space council, said the agency should seize the opportunity.

"It does not happen that often the vice president, or someone of that level, is so interested in NASA and space flights," he said.

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