Amid the rapid advancement of national space programs in nations like China and India, President Donald Trump signed a new directive mandating America’s return to the moon, and further down the road, putting American boots on Mars.
The directive I’m signing today will refocus America’s space program on human exploration and discovery. 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 after signing the document titled, “Space Directive One.”
“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars. And perhaps, someday, to many worlds beyond.”
NASA recently announced yet another delay in its long-awaited Space Launch System rocket program. The rocket, which promises to be the most powerful ever used by mankind once operational, has been plagued with delays, prompting lawmakers to remind the space fairing agency that the tax payers funding the space program are sure to begin growing frustrated by their repeated failures to meet deadlines if things don’t turn around soon. Nonetheless, since that hearing last month, NASA has officially acknowledged that the SLS now won’t take to the skies until mid-2020.
That issue alone may take the sails out of President Trump’s directive. Despite Trump’s decision to focus NASA’s attention on manned space exploration, the platform NASA is counting on to take Americans back to into space won’t begin unmanned test launches until just months before the next presidential election. Plagued by low approval ratings throughout much of his first year in office, President Trump runs the risk of losing a reelection bid, which would place NASA’s future in the hands of a new elected official just as it re-enters the operational realm. Just as Trump has now mandated a shift from Obama’s previous plan to put Americans on an asteroid by 2025, a new president could likewise do away with Trump’s Lunar aspirations with the swipe of a pen.
Further limiting NASA’s chances at success is a proposed reduction in total funding for NASA under Trump’s budget plan released earlier this year. NASA already accounts for less than a half of one percent of the total national budget, and if the president’s plan is accepted, it will see a significant tightening of its belt – to the tune of around $200 million.
The directive does seem to encourage cooperation with private space firms like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, however, which could help to offset some of these limitations.
“Under the new Space Policy Directive, the United States will help drive the burgeoning domestic space industry, bring new knowledge from the cosmos, and spur incredible technology,” the directive states.
This inclusion may allow for a more rapid advance on lunar objectives, as Musk has already announced plans to send civilian astronauts on trips around the moon as early as late next year, and his new massive rocket, the Falcon Heavy, is expected to make its inaugural launch as soon as January. That launch, which will be carrying Musk’s own Tesla Roadster as a payload, carries with it fairly low expectations, however, as even Musk has declared that he’ll consider it a success if the rocket clears the platform before exploding.
It would seem, then, that this new directive is more about publicity than action. With a potentially reduced budget and ongoing headaches surrounding the rocket platform Trump’s directive will hinge upon, it seems clear that even a trip to the moon will likely require a larger investment, in terms of both time and money, than the sitting president may be willing or able to provide. However, there is still time to make changes in policy and direction that could expedite the process and support the goals set forth in this directive, and although NASA’s leadership are singing the praises of this week’s announcement, one can assume they’re quietly lobbying for such changes to occur in the near future.
Image courtesy of NASA