Science & Technology

A 'major course correction' for NASA as Trump sets 2024 deadline for trip to lunar south pole

However, Trump has previously stated his unhappiness with the 2028 timeline—a date that would mean he was years out of office before a landing, even if he should be re-elected. By moving the landing date to no later than 2024, Trump would, not at all coincidentally, be putting a return to the moon on a timeline that would allow him to be there to claim credit should he win re-election in 2020. What it means for NASA’s step-by-step plan is unclear.

In addition to setting a timeline that sees astronauts on the lunar surface within five years, Pence announced a landing site: the lunar south pole. It had long been suspected that areas around the south pole of the moon might hold water ice, particularly in the shaded depths of craters near the pole. Recent satellite surveys by India’s Chandrayaan probe, Japan’s Kaguya orbiter, and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter have confirmed the presence of water ice in what appears to be large quantities. That ice could potentially be used for air, water, and fuel for a future lunar base. That possibility has made the moon’s south pole a proposed target, and China landed the Chang’e 4 probe in a crater near the south pole in January. The site is also the target of upcoming uncrewed missions from the European Space Agency and from private company Blue Origin.

However, landing at the pole is more difficult. So the new guidelines for NASA require not only putting astronauts on the moon years ahead of schedule, but doing so in a more challenging system.

In his opening remarks, Pence took credit for “fully funding the Space Launch System,” even though Trump’s budgets, including his proposed budget for 2020, significantly reduced the scope of that system. The latest budget leaves the SLS without the configurations it would need to conduct planetary missions. Pence also made it clear that SLS may take a sideline to a commercial launcher if that’s what is required to meet the goal set by Trump. None of the remarks made things seem any better for the delayed SLS, and Pence ground this home by repeatedly threatening to replace any contractor that “can’t stay on schedule.”

During his portion of the program, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine declared that he was cutting all steps on SLS necessary to get the new booster to the pad in 2020, which would allow NASA to carry out a planned flight of the Orion capsule without mounting it on a commercial booster. If NASA is unable to meet that goal, it could mean that large launchers such as the SpaceX Super Heavy or Blue Origin New Glenn are available in time to take over for SLS, endangering the continuation of the program.

Pence also accused NASA of spending too much time in “analysis paralysis” and stated that, in addition to the revision of the agency’s goals and timeline, there was also going to be a change in “mindset,” which apparently means that NASA will be skipping many of the incremental, iterative processes that were built into the previous timeline.

In addition, Pence emphasized the need to develop nuclear-powered rockets—which is likely a response to recent Russian claims that it was making progress on such a system. The U.S. had a nuclear-based rocket system well along in development in the 1960s and early 1970s. Steps have already been taken to revive this technology.

Other issues arose during the meeting, including news that the FAA had on Tuesday posted simplified regulations for applying for launches and returns. Also, it was announced that the United States Space Force would be headed by a four-star officer, but the title of that officer (space marshal? star fleet commander? grand moff?) wasn’t specified.

Pence mentioned Chinese and Russian efforts to put humans on the moon, but insisted that the “first woman and the next man” to step onto the moon would be Americans. Despite the compressed timeline put forward by Trump and Pence, few details were provided for how cutting the time to the first crewed landing nearly in half would affect NASA’s planning.

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