Foust Forward | Third time’s the charm to return man to the moon?

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Dec. 18, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The timing of the announcement was a surprise. Its content, however, was not.

The fact that President Trump would be signing what the White House called Space Policy Directive 1 was announced just the day before the Dec. 11 ceremony. That date made sense in one aspect: it was the 45th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 17 lunar module, the last human mission to the moon to date.

The president made clear he wanted to change that. “It marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972 for long-term exploration and use,” Trump said of his directive.

The administration, though, had been signaling for months that it wanted to go back to the moon. The directive was a recommendation unanimously approved at the National Space Council’s first meeting in October, and officials such as Vice President Pence had been dropping hints for months before that about putting the moon back on the path to Mars.

But neither the directive nor comments at the brief signing ceremony — it lasted less than 10 minutes — offered details about just how the United States will send humans back to the moon. The directive simply replaces one paragraph of the 2010 National Space Policy developed by the Obama administration, with no details about timelines or budgets. Neither Trump nor Pence set deadlines, or made funding promises, in their remarks.

NASA, in a statement issued after the ceremony, said that implementation of the policy “will be reflected in NASA’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget request” to be released early next year, and left it at that.

The timing of the announcement, some suggested, was intended as a signal to the White House Office of Management and Budget as it finalizes that budget proposal, given that it proposed cutting funding for exploration programs in its 2018 budget.

The directive is the third time in less than three decades that a president has formally called for a human return to the moon. The two Presidents Bush made similar declarations, 14 and a half years apart, only to see them falter, one undone when it was saddled with a $500 billion price tag and the other failing to survive a change in administrations.

This third proposal, arriving as if on cue nearly 14 years after the second President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, will have to be different. There’s no sign Congress is willing to significantly increase NASA’s budget to pay for a conventional, NASA-led approach, or for raiding funding from other agency programs.

The directive offers a hint of what might work, though. The new paragraph added to the space policy directs NASA to lead “an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners.”

International interest in lunar exploration has been growing in recent years, such as the campaigning by the European Space Agency’s leader, Jan Woerner, for his “Moon Village” proposal. Japan’s government recently endorsed cooperating on NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway as a way to send Japanese astronauts to the moon.

The commercial sector has demonstrated increasing capability for supporting a human return to the moon, and willingness in doing so. Blue Origin, for example, has proposed building a lander system for delivering cargo to the lunar surface to support human missions there.

Even SpaceX, which has long been focused on Mars, has a new interest in the moon. “If you want to get the public really fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon,” Elon Musk said this summer.

Translating that commercial and international support into a sustainable program to send humans back to the moon will be a key challenge for NASA, the National Space Council and the White House.

If they fail this third time around, a future president may not bother with a fourth attempt.
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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.