by Douglas Messier
In a rousing speech that marked the unofficial start of his campaign for the presidency, Vice President Mike Pence vowed on Tuesday to use “any means necessary” to land American astronauts at the south pole of the moon by 2024.
“I’m here, on the President’s behalf, to tell the men and women of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the American people that, at the direction of the President of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years,” he said during a meeting of the National Space Council in Huntsville, Ala.
“And let me be clear: The first woman and the next man on the Moon will both be American astronauts, launched by American rockets, from American soil,” he added.
By moving the target date up by four years from 2028, Pence hopes the make returning astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years a crowning achievement and his and President Donald Trump’s eight years in office should they be reelected next year.
As chairman of the revived National Space Council, Pence would be able to take credit for having spearheaded the effort as he ran to succeed his boss.
In his speech, Pence fired a shot across the bows of the Marshall Space Flight Center and Boeing, who are leading the effort to build the long-delayed and over budget Space Launch System (SLS) designed to transport the Orion spacecraft and habitable modules to the moon.
“But the truth is, we’re committed to Marshall, the incredible history that you have here,” the vice president said. “But to be clear, we’re not committed to any one contractor. If our current contractors can’t meet this objective, then we’ll find ones that will.
“If American industry can provide critical commercial services without government development, then we’ll buy them. And if commercial rockets are the only way to get American astronauts to the Moon in the next five years, then commercial rockets it will be,” Pence added.
Other commercial rockets would include SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. Other commercial rockets now under development include SpaceX’s Super Heavy/Starship, ULA’s Vulcan, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA.
Pence stressed that getting to the moon quickly was a vital priority.
“Urgency must be our watchword. Failure to achieve our goal to return an American astronaut to the Moon in the next five years is not an option,” he added.
What urgency, apart from Pence’s political future, would require moving up a moon landing by an entire presidential election? Pence had an answer for that.
“Now, make no mistake about it: We’re in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s, and the stakes are even higher,” he said. “Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the Moon and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world’s preeminent spacefaring nation.”
Whether we’re actually in a race with China to the moon, or in danger of falling behind it in seizing the lunar high ground, is a matter of debate. But, Pence was not shy about invoking the memory of President John F. Kennedy, who challenged the Soviets to a race to the moon in 1961.
“Our space program was still in its infancy then,” Pence said. “NASA was barely two years old. And yet, President Kennedy knew that history is not written by those who stubbornly cling to the status quo. History is written by those who dare to dream big and do the impossible.
“Then, as now, the United States didn’t have a rocket capable of sending a spacecraft to the surface of the Moon. But now, as then, the United States has a President who is a dreamer; who understands that this is a challenge that, once again, ‘we are unwilling to postpone’ and ‘one which we intend to win’ again,” he added.
None of this rhetoric was new to anyone who has followed the American space program since the last Apollo crew returned from the moon in December 1972. Both President George H.W. Bush and his son, President George W. Bush, raised their arms to the heavens and promised to send astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars. Neither one did. Neither really had a viable plan to do so.
On this, Pence sought to reassure his audience that they could move up the moon landing by four years.
“In Space Policy Directive-1, the President directed NASA to create a lunar exploration plan,” the vice president said. “But as of today, more than 15 months later, we still don’t have a plan in place. But [NASA] Administrator [Jim] Bridenstine told me, five minutes ago, we now have a plan to return to the moon.”
Huh. An actual plan. Unfortunately, neither Pence nor Bridenstine seemed eager to share it with the council or the public.
After a rousing, Kennedyesque moon landing speech, Pence might have begun the meeting by having Bridenstine explain the plan and get feedback from the other space council members there assembled.
Instead, he went around the table to other members for progress reports on space initiatives at other agencies. Talk about a momentum killer. One could not have imaged JFK after his famous 1962 Rice University speech, the crowd in the stadium riled up, turning immediately to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, NASA Jim Webb and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for committee reports on the nation’s space and rocket programs.
When Pence got around to Bridenstine, the NASA administrator didn’t put much meat on the bones of this accelerated moon program. In fact, he raised more questions than he answered.
The whole need for urgency in the lunar program became particularly acute a couple of weeks ago when Boeing told Bridenstine that the launch of the first SLS/Orion launch, known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), could be delayed from June 2020 until as late as November 2021.
It was yet another infuriating delay in programs that had already slipped for years and gone billions over budget. it would also push the lunar flight by an automated Orion spacecraft beyond the presidential election in November 2020.
Bridenstine began a review to determine whether Orion and an upper-stage booster could be launched on a pair of commercial rockets next year. Once docked in orbit, Orion would be sent around the moon before splashing down under parachutes in the ocean.
That review apparently came up negative over issues of docking technology. rBridenstine reiterated his support for the SLS and told the council that he was now confident that EM-1 could be launched by the end of 2020.
But, how did a potential delay of up to 17 months get shortened to about six? And what was the probability that NASA could make the new launch date? Bridenstine didn’t say.
There were other odd claims. Bridenstine stressed the need to have the Exploration Upper Stage ready for use in time for a 2024 moon landing. However, the Trump Administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2020, submitted only weeks ago, calls for deferring work on EUS.
In fact, the budget cuts spending on SLS, Orion and the Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) needed to support launches at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The space agency’s overall budget would be reduced by $488 million below the $21.5 billion approved by Congress only last month.
The funding cut from SLS, Orion and EGS would be diverted for the development of lunar exploration technologies. The most prominent element of that strategy is the Lunar Gateway, a human-tended space station to be placed around the moon as a base to facilitate exploration of Earth’s closest neighbor.
What does moving up the moon landing four years mean for the Lunar Gateway? Would NASA have the money to do both? How much would that cost? And what exactly did Pence mean when he said the United States would establish a permanent base on the moon?
Bridenstine answered none of these questions. If NASA has an actual plan to land astronauts by 2024, the NASA administrator was probably reluctant to share it on live TV before key members of Congress and their staffs are briefed on it. If NASA doesn’t have a firm plan, then he and the vice president were bluffing.
As the old saying goes, the president proposes, Congress disposes. It’s ultimately up to the legislature to approve how much NASA will spend and precisely what it will spend it on. The vice president and the National Space Council cannot decide such things.
Any plan to accelerate the moon landing will have to make it past Alabama’s powerful Senator, Richard Shelby, who was present in Huntsville for the council meeting. The Republican lawmaker has been a powerful defender of the SLS program, which employs a lot of people in his state.
It should be noted that both SLS and Orion have bipartisan support in Congress because they employ a lot of people in multiple states that are crucial to Trump and Pence getting reelected.
Pence’s comment about having a plan as of five minutes ago raises an interesting possibility. Did Bridenstine work out some sort of compromise with Shelby while in Huntsville that would include a mixed fleet of SLS and commercial boosters?
Would SLS, Orion and EGS now get a funding increase? If not, would NASA Marshall get a big piece of the funding being spent developing lunar exploration technologies? Would more money be funneled to Huntsville for nuclear propulsion technologies?
None of these issues were raised, much less answered, during the space council’s meeting. Indeed, the meeting raised with uncertainty about the following issues:
- Will Congress approve a plan to move up the moon landing to 2024?
- Can NASA actually deliver by that deadline?
- What is all this going to cost American taxpayers?
- What other NASA programs would suffer by rushing to the moon?
- Will Trump and Pence be in office in two years?
- If they’re not, would they leave behind an executable plan for their successors?
- Would a new administration follow through on the plan?
There’s another thing that Pence might ponder about his lunar plan. By the time Apollo 11 landed on the moon 50 years ago, JFK was dead, Lyndon Johnson had been driven out of office, and the presidency was in the hands of the man whom both men had defeated for the presidency in 1960, Richard Nixon.
Although the American public was excited and proud of the moon landing, overall support for space spectaculars had waned amid the cost and carnage of the Vietnam War, civil unrest, riots, political assassinations and other woes.
Nixon responded by slashing NASA’s ambitious lunar exploration program (three moon landings were canceled) and rejecting a plan put forth by the Space Task Group chaired by Vice President Spiro Agnew for an ambitious space program that would have landed astronauts on Mars in the mid-1980’s.
The point being that priorities change. And by the time NASA lands astronauts back on the moon, whether it be in 2024 or 2028 or some other year, the American people might not care that much. Especially if the nation is distracted by another 2008-style economic meltdown, a war, the growing gulf between rich and poor, or other problems.
Pence’s effort to get NASA moving again — to create an urgency to an effort that seems more like a jobs program than a serious exploration campaign — is a very worth goal. But, if moving the landing up to 2024 is a political strategy that compromises NASA’s long-range plans, it won’t be worth it.
If the Apollo program has taught us anything, a lunar program needs to be a sustainable effort that builds infrastructure and capabilities that allows us to explore the moon and exploit the resources there. The American people need to understand what we’re doing there and why it matters sufficiently to continue supporting the effort over the long term.
With so many details uncertain, it’s hard to know exactly what will happen with the Trump Administration’s new plan. One can hope this is not another unsustainable, politically motivated effort that results in little more than footprints and flags on the dusty surface of the moon.