On Saturday afternoon inside a hangar at the Melbourne International Airport in Florida, President Trump will hold a campaign-style rally for supporters. That same morning (if all goes as scheduled), about an hour away at the Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX will launch its Falcon 9 commercial crew rocket from Launchpad 39A—the historic site of so many Apollo liftoffs decades ago.
Saturday’s visit puts the president into the orbit of the nascent commercial space industry, and one giant leap away from the hallowed ground of NASA’s glory days. In fact, some space enthusiasts even hope he’ll use the rally to announce a mission to the moon.
Given the impulsive nature of the new administration, why not? Forget about cancer moonshots; let’s do a moonshot moonshot! The Obama Administration was good at encouraging private industry to get into a space race; NASA and the people in its sphere of influence seem to think Trump might at last provide the bucks to let them go Buck Rogers once again.
To Infinity and Beyond
During the campaign, Trump talked about being a space president. And it’s true that some policy experts believe that the moon is a short-term achievable goal that could rally public support—support that has flagged for a Mars mission that won’t put boots on the regolith until the mid 2030s.
The moon “provides the most opportunities for the United States to show leadership in partnering with the private sector and with friends and allies,” says Scott Pace, director of the space policy institute at George Washington University and a NASA associate administrator under George W. Bush. “It serves the US national interest. That’s why you do those things.”
According to the Washington Post, this week acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot sent a letter to employees saying he’d instructed the top NASA official for human spaceflight to study whether NASA could put astronauts on a lunar orbiter called EM-1—scheduled for launch in 2018.
That would be a new plan. EM-1 is supposed to ride on a trial run for the long-underway SLS/Orion launch system. NASA’s current schedule didn’t have people on top of SLS/Orion until several years after Trump’s first term. And as for putting things on rockets that you didn’t expect to put on the rocket, ahead of the schedule for the rocket? Well, you saw The Martian, right?
Return to Flight
Getting into orbit and beyond more cheaply and efficiently might be good for human space exploration in the long run, but Trump isn’t the last word. He still has to convince Congress. “President Obama did not put capital against Congress,” says Lori Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator during Obama’s first term. She’s talking specifically about the Constellation rocket program, cancelled for cost overruns in 2010.
But Trump might have more fortitude where asking for space expenditures is concerned. “Trump may be the president who wants to take it on,” Garver says. “Most people believe Congress will hold their own, but I’m optimistic with the Trump administration.”
Whether or not Congress wants to spend new money on space, the House Science Committee definitely loves NASA Classic. At a hearing on Thursday, Tom Stafford—who flew on Apollo 10—complained that NASA had accomplished little under Obama. “We’ve had eight years of lost opportunities,” Stafford, now 86 years old, said. “We have seen the consequences of failure to carry out long-term objectives. The changing of major programs with the change of new administration has been detrimental to the nation’s space program.”
(Fact Check: NASA’s spacecraft over the past eight years have rocked—even though they did it without people on board the rockets. Kepler Space Telescope, Juno, OSIRIS-REx, the Dawn mission to the asteroid belt, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Curiosity rover on Mars … just saying.)
At the same hearing, Harrison Schmitt, a geologist who walked on the moon in 1972, said NASA should be more like it was in 1972. “NASA was younger than it is today,” he said—during the Apollo 13 crisis (you saw Apollo 13, right?) the average age in mission control was 26.
You might argue that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other modern-day space entrepreneurs are drawing bright young talent just as NASA did in the post-Sputnik Cold War days. Indeed, members of the Science Committee acknowledged at the hearing that the private industry, which grew under the Obama administration’s efforts, will be key to getting back to the moon or taking the long trip to Mars.
What’s missing is direction and someone in charge, they said. Which suggests that the committee members—not to mention the SpaceX team on Launchpad 39A—are going to have at least part of an ear cocked toward Saturday’s Trump rally.
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