This op-ed originally appeared in the April 9, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
The Trump administration has set out a new civil space policy. The announcement and first meeting of the newly reconstituted National Space Council emphasized two new directions and one old one: 1. Human spaceflight is to be focused on the moon; 2. Direct government funding for the International Space Station (ISS) is to cease after 2024; and 3. The new Space Launch System (SLS) is to be built.
If one replaces the 2024 retirement of ISS with the 2010 retirement of space shuttle, you pretty much have the “back to the moon” space policy of the George W. Bush administration. Back then, shuttle funding would be phased out to pay for development of a heavy-lift rocket. We know how that turned out. If these three guidelines are followed, it will likely lead to the end of human spaceflight by the United States — not by intent, but by atrophy.
Let’s examine these guidelines:
1. Back to ‘back to the moon’: This will be the third presidential declaration for this goal. The previous two failed because of lack of funding support and lack of political rationale. Those go hand-in-hand. This time we actually have less of a financial commitment to the moon, including no plan at all for landing humans there. That the goal lacks a political rationale can be seen when at the most recent meeting of the National Space Council, the moon apparently was barely mentioned. The administration proposal makes the Deep Space Gateway — initiated by the Obama administration as a gateway into the solar system, a destination in itself — sort of a mini-space station or platform around the moon. The only rationale offered thus far is that it might support robotic landers (emphasizing putative private missions) or human missions from other nations. Is this now a sustainable rationale for what will be a very expensive human spaceflight program? Given current U.S. commitment to decreased government funding and its track record on lunar initiatives, other nations — European, Russia, India and even Japan — might find in China an alternative and more reliable leader to the moon.
2. End direct government support for the ISS: The notion is that the space station will be made available for commercial operation and support. What is the commerce? The aging space station’s primary mission will soon be maintenance and repair. Is it imagined that tourists (no more than three at a time) will pay for that? Space station science is good, but it has resisted any commercialization or privatization. Picture-taking holidays in space will be far more cheaply supplied by robotic spacecraft operated in various forms of Virtual Reality from the ground.
3. The Space Launch System: With the abandonment of the Mars goal and the initial success of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, one has to look hard to find the niche market that SLS will fulfill. Is NASA likely to get big enough budget increases in the next five years to cover both the cost of developing SLS and the construction and habitation of its Deep Space Gateway destination? Likely the Gateway infrastructure will be delayed, reducing the addressable market for the SLS even further. The Trump administration’s proposed NASA budget indicates no increases for the Gateway and proposes new investment only for commercial space (one of the few Obama administration policies adopted by Trump). But those commercial space investments are far more likely to compete with the SLS than to create a new market for it.
In short, we have a new human space program policy resting on three weak, artificial legs. In the space race between humans and robots, humans would be left badly hobbled. Robotic lunar and Mars missions will advance and missions seeking signs of life on astrobiological targets (Mars, the ocean worlds of the outer solar system and exoplanets) will dominate exploration interest. Human spaceflight in the near term will primarily interest those who seek the commercial venture or private access to space. That is, it will be confined to Earth orbit with maybe a gimmicky trial run around the moon.
This bodes badly for the government program, and I fear the public interest will slip away along with its lack of rationale and absence of vision. Maybe that’s OK — it didn’t matter much that the Vikings were the first Europeans to make it to the Western Hemisphere, or that a Norwegian was first to the South Pole. The human exploration of other worlds doesn’t have to be American just because we were first. But it is a shame to give it up or let it wither away in yet another unsustainable venture of our industry.
Louis Friedman is the co-founder and executive director emeritus of the Planetary Society.