Charlie Brown or Snoopy: America’s Future in Space Hangs in the Balance

As the Apollo 10 crew walks along a corridor on the way to Launch Complex 39B, mission commander Thomas P. Stafford pats the nose of Snoopy, the mission’s mascot, held by Jamye Flowers, astronaut Gordon Coopers’ secretary. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

This week, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 10, the final mission before the first manned landing on the moon by Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969.

During the 8-day voyage, Tom Stafford and Eugene Cernan took the lunar module (LM) to within 47,400 feet (14.4 km) of the lunar surface before rendezvousing with the command service module (CSM) piloted by John Young.

Despite a few hiccups, the mission was a success, clearing the way for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to fulfill the late President John F. Kennedy’s goal of a manned moon landing by the end of the decade.

Snoopy and Charlie Brown on a console at Mission Control during the Apollo 10 mission. (Credit: NASA)

The crew named the CSM “Charlie Brown” and the LM “Snoopy” after characters in Charles Schultz’s popular comic strip, “Peanuts..” Snoopy is the mascot of NASA’s safety program. Each year, the space agency’s astronauts bestow Silver Snoopy Awards for outstanding performance in contributing to flight safety and mission success.

The Apollo lunar program ended in December 1972 after six moon landings when the crew of Apollo 17 commanded by Cernan splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. In the years that followed, NASA’s astronauts has been stuck in orbit as various plans by different presidential administrations to return them to the lunar surface have come and gone.

On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1989, President George H.W. Bush proposed the Space Exploration Intiative (SEI), that would have had astronauts returning to the moon to stay and then voyaging to Mars over the next 30 years.

NASA pretty much demolished the initiative with a 90-Day Study that pegged the total cost of the program at roughly $500 billion. SEI didn’t survive the first Bush presidency; the Clinton Administration canceled it after assuming office in 1993.

In 2004, President George W. Bush unveiled his Vision for Space Exploration, which had NASA establishing a permanent base on the lunar surface by 2020. President Barack Obama subsequently canceled the underfunded and behind schedule program after assuming office in 2009.

While Charlie Brown and Snoopy were good lucks charms for NASA during the Apollo program, the federal government’s constantly shifting priorities and unwillingness to properly fund programs has created a meme based on one of “Peanuts” long-running gags.

A metaphor for our inability to return to the moon: Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown.

Lucy Van Pelt promises to hold a football on the ground to allow Charlie Brown to kick it. Just as he prepares to do so, Lucy pulls the ball away causing Charlie to go flying threw the air and fall on his back. No matter how many times she does this, Charlie still believes that this time he will be able to finally kick the ball.

Today, NASA is once again planning to send astronauts to the lunar surface with the Artemis program. Until two months ago, the space agency had been aiming to do so in 2028. Yes, the agency said, it will take longer than Apollo did, but this time America would be back on the moon not for brief visits but to stay.

In March, the Trump Administration disrupted this plan by declaring the landing should take place by 2024. The new date was not set in accordance with any carefully laid NASA assessment of whether it could do it by then. The space agency had no plan at the time.

Instead, the date was set by political expedience. It would allow President Donald Trump to place his brand on the moon by the end of a hoped-for second term. And it would give Vice President Mike Pence, who is overseeing the plan as chairman of the National Space Council, something to run on as he seeks the presidency in 2024.

The Administration’s announcement of the 2024 target date without NASA having a clear plan to do so has caused consternation among some members of Congress. Legislators are skeptical about the urgency of a return to the moon within five years. Democrats are reluctant to cut other NASA programs to give a president and vice president they loath a political victory in space.

The lack of details about the plan haven’t helped. Last week, the Administration submitted a $1.6 billion supplemental appropriations request for the fiscal year 2020 budget. The request left House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) baffled.

“While I am a supporter of challenging human space exploration endeavors that can take us to the Moon and eventually to Mars, based on the limited information provided to Congress it is impossible to judge the merits of the President’s budget amendment,” Johnson said in a statement.

“We don’t know how much money will be required in total to meet the arbitrary 2024 Moon landing deadline or how that money will be spent,” she added. “We don’t know how much additional money will subsequently be required to turn the crash program to get astronauts to the Moon by 2024 into a sustainable exploration program that will lead to Mars. And we don’t know what NASA’s technical plan for its lunar program is.”

On Friday, the House commerce, justice and science subcommittee voted to boost NASA’s budget for FY 2020 but largely ignored the supplemental request. The subcommittee also rejected the administration’s lunar exploration priorities, which were included in the original budget request in March.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who has been working over the last two months to provide those very details to Congress, has stressed repeatedly that America’s return to the moon requires a broad consensus and bipartisan support. However, key members of Congress are feeling largely out of the loop on this new plan.

America’s plans to once again send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit hang in the balance. The question remains: will the new Artemis program revive the glories of the Apollo missions? Or will it be another example of Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown?

Time will tell.

  • Robert G. Oler

    It has no public support

  • duheagle

    It doesn’t necessarily need any, it just needs a comparable lack of public opposition. So far as I am able to tell, that is pretty much where we are – much of the public doesn’t even know about Artemis and those who do don’t seem highly motivated either way.

    Besides, public support is hardly a requirement for advancing a pet project. SLS-Orion has no public support either.

    An even better example would be Open Borders, which also has little public support but has massive public opposition, yet which is still one of the Dems top two or three priorities based on what they’ve done the last several years.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    There certainly is massive public opposition to Trump’s so-called border plan and his stupid wall which he may build and the next administration will knock down. Returning to the Moon is one of those things that sounds like a good idea but the devil is always in the details. Will the money come out of Medicaid and HUD or will it come out of DoD? You get the point. Public support or opposition will be more of a factor of whose ox gets gored. Unfortunately, people on both sides of the political spectrum who tend to jump on bandwagons won’t even demand an answer to why we need to go there and what we are going to do when we get there. We’ve already done “flags and footprints” and geology lessons. I want to go back. I just want to hear a good reason to go now that doesn’t involve Chinese boogymen.

  • Douglas Messier

    Bullshit. Obama didn’t have an open borders policy. Wish people would stop lying about that.

  • Douglas Messier

    This is not a place to discuss immigration policy. I will remove any posts continuing that thread.

  • Emmet Ford

    I find that I am really conflicted about this. On the one hand, I am absolutely repulsed at the idea of giving Donald Trump a flags-and-footprints-on-the-moon triumph just in time for the 2024 presidential election.

    I also resent the two poison pills slipped into the Artemis project amendment to the proposed budget, namely the raiding if the Pell Grant funding and the empowerment of the NASA administrator to purloin the funds of other NASA programs to support Artemis. The latter is particularly galling in light of all the preening and posturing Bridenstine engaged in at the recent NASA town hall, where he claimed that the administration’s plan for funding Artemis preserved and protected the funds for other NASA programs, and he couldn’t see doing it any other way.

    Finally, I am depressed that the stentorious “by any means necessary” pledges by Pence and Bridenstine have so quickly and totally collapsed into supine oaths of allegiance to the SLS boondoggle.

    On the other hand, I kinda like this plan. The 2024 date shifts the lunar gateway pork barrel toll booth to the back end of the deal, which makes it less likely to happen at all. If it does eventually happen, maybe it will have morphed into something more palatable by then.

    Another nice feature of this plan is that it heavily features commercial space. Previously, the official line was commercial space does LEO and NASA does cislunar space. Artemis embodies a further ceding of territory to those untrustworthy capitalists. We’re still stuck with the socialist, command economy SLS, but we’re chipping away at entrenched NASA pork to the degree that it is currently possible to do so.

    And the last redeeming feature that I’ll mention is they will never make the November 2024 deadline, so Trump won’t get his triumph regardless. I don’t believe that the SLS program has a higher gear it can shift into. I don’t believe NASA will certify Jeff Who’s lander by late 2024. I don’t even know where they’re getting their ascent vehicle. And if a Democrat gets in there in 2020, and Lori Garver gets the baton, then maybe we can kill the SLS after all.

  • redneck

    Thanks Doug,
    I had a comment not show up a few days ago that seemed like it might have been marked as spam. It was mostly an immigration reply on an others’ comment. I was wondering what had happened and now know to avoid that subject here.

  • duheagle

    The subject at hand – raised by Mr. Oler – was the necessity or non-necessity of broad public support for given government policies as a factor in their enactment or advancement. I addressed this anent Artemis and SLS, then tossed in Open Borders as an example of a policy being actively pushed despite facing strong headwinds in terms of public support.

    I did not explicitly accuse Barack Obama of anything but will concede that “several” was probably the wrong word to use in my last sentence. “Few” would have been a better choice given that the really high-profile and high-places push for Open Borders on the Dems’ part has been over the past three years – pretty much since Trump became the Republican front-runner during the 2016 nomination season.

    I don’t think what I had to say can be fairly characterized as a rant. I didn’t even criticize Open Borders as a policy, just noted its broad unpopularity. Your response is certainly a good bit less temperate than my original comment, but it’s your forum and you can, of course, do as you like.

  • mike shupp

    Trump’s plans are too new and too … well, Trumpish … to have much support. And I’ll note that most reaction on the internet is cool to Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezos’ goals for space colonies as well. But it strikes me the real stumbling block is that many Congress members look downstream and envision 50 or even 100 billion dollar annual NASA budgets if even a small lunar base is established, and start barfing at the prospect.

  • Douglas Messier

    i sent several hours on a post in an effort to illuminate historic parallels and provide a perspective for the current debate over our space future. Immigration is such a hot button and contentious issue that it will take over the entire tread.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The Administration is really going the extra mile to include NASA in a lunar return. But if Congress is unwilling and NASA is unable, I expect you will see a shift in support in this Administration from NASA to a commercial return if they win the election. Indeed, they have already hinted at in statements made, including stating it would be American astronauts and not specifically NASA ones that return. Also they are laying the foundation to blame both Congress and NASA for failing to meet the goal.

  • duheagle

    As well they should. Left to its own devices, NASA would certainly delay, de-scope and gold-plate any lunar base to a fare-thee-well and render it unsupportable in much the same way as Gateway had evolved until recently, plus, of course, SLS-Orion, and Constellation before it.

    Minerva, I think, is a sort of probation for NASA – a last chance to demonstrate something resembling capability and economy. I hope its senior leadership have been apprised of this in some non-public fashion as the agency has never seemed very sharp about taking hints.

    I think if NASA is still whinging about needing more time and/or money by early 2020 – and SLS has still not flown the EM-1 mission – that a second Trump administration will begin efforts to de-scope NASA and stand up a new agency charged explicitly with space settlement.

  • duheagle

    That’s how I see things shaping up as well. NASA is badly broken and is probably not capable of the needed self-repair. But the Trump administration will offer this last chance to shape up so as to justify future removal of the space settlement, and probably human spaceflight, missions from NASA and their placement in the hands of a new agency chartered to do nothing else. The job of doing this will be made much easier if, as I suspect will happen, the Dems lose the House again in 2020.

    While that political catfight is going on, I think Minerva will morph into something Musk and Bezos-centric based on an appeal by the Trump administration to patriotism and posterity with at least initial efforts paid for out of both mens’ rather considerable private assets as a way of short-circuiting residual political resistance.

    One of the early goals should be development of a sustainable, self-perpetuating industrial economy on the Moon. In its earliest form, this might take the form of Musk and Bezos selling services to each other. Musk will shortly have the ability to land much larger payloads on the Moon than will Blue Origin, but Bezos is better able to afford the cost of doing so.

  • duheagle

    Any 2024 triumph would be a parting bow for Trump as he retires from politics but would be of political use mainly to Pence who seems to harbor succession ambitions. Would that be equally odious where you are concerned? A 2024 lunar return would also be an indisputable feather in the cap of the U.S. in general. Is that of less value to you than denying political opponents an accomplishment?

    As for the “poison pills,” if the Pell Grant surplus simply grows year-after-year such that it will never be used for its ostensible purpose, what harm is done by repurposing it? No needy college students will actually be denied their opportunity to avail themselves of a government-subsidized four-year stint of left-wing indoctrination and training in proper deportment for citizens of the supposedly coming-soon commissariat of the Union of United States Socialist Republics.

    As for the ability of the NASA Administrator to reallocate funds within the overall NASA authorization, that power could, indeed, be used to even more easily beggar SMD for the benefit of SLS, etc. But that’s been done pretty effectively in the past even absent such authority. It seems to me such authority could also be used – once SLS, et al, has, once again, clearly failed to perform – to carve funding away from that chronically non-performing boondoggle as a way of paying for missions on commercial rockets to advance the Artemis project despite SLS’s serial defaults.

  • Emmet Ford

    Like I said, I’m conflicted. You seem to think 2024 is more possible than I do. To me, it sounds like an Elon Musk schedule.

    As for using the authority to repurpose funds to jettison SLS if it falls to keep the schedule, how might the chairman of the Senate appropriations committee react to that?

    How likely is it that either chamber of Congress would decide to cede that authority to this administration?

    What does it do to the schedule if at some intermediate date Bridenstine decides to pull that plug and undertake the mating of s ULA upper stage to a Falcon Heavy? And doesn’t that only barely work for a free return loop around the moon? Is there even a real plan B?

    In a sense, as soon as the schedule starts to slip, it’s game over. How does Trump react when he figures out that it’s going to be some other president that presides over America’s return to the moon? He’s likely to can Bridenstine via tweet and install some Shelby acolyte in his place.

    And this is assuming they get their budget in a timely fashion. How likely is that? A continuing resolution pushes 2024 off the table.

  • duheagle

    Musk, I think, expects to have people on the Moon even earlier than 2024. But I will grant you that 2024 is a Musk-ish schedule.

    Which is why I don’t think NASA and the legacy contractors, on their own, have any prayer of making it. I don’t think they could even make 2028.

    Shelby’s reaction to the proposed repurposing authority for the Administrator might be favorable this year if he got the idea that SLS would be the main beneficiary of the repurposing. But, even if that authority can’t be realistically considered do-able until 1H 2021, that provides sufficient time for both SLS to fail and SHS – and maybe even NG – to succeed. That would vastly change the political calculus even if Shelby opposes the measure and hasn’t gone toes-up in the meantime.

    But, even if Shelby was on-board, the likelihood of this Congress granting Mr. B. such authority is virtually nil. Democratic House.

    But the next Congress will be soon enough to get that job done as it will take office just before Trump’s second inaugural and won’t feature Democrats in charge of either chamber. I don’t foresee any effort to go after SLS in a big way until it fails to launch EM-1 in 1Q or 2Q 2021 – something I consider to be all but certain.

    The ICPS-on-FH thing would most probably be Plan C by the time Plan A is seen to be unworkable. Or it might be Plan D if it looks like New Glenn is going to be ready soon enough.

    But I think Plan B will be SHS if it advances toward initial operational capability as quickly as I expect it to. Once it’s seen to work, Trump, Pence and Bridenstine won’t have any problem resting that much weight on it, especially if either or both FH-ICPS and NG are available as backstops.

    I also don’t see Trump firing Mr. B. out of pique – or at all. That isn’t how he works. He’s plenty willing to fire people, but he doesn’t do it for no reason and he doesn’t do it out of anger. He certainly doesn’t do it if the person in question is still very much in the game for him and still has time to pull things out.

    Still less do I see him putting a Shelby stooge in the NASA Administrator job. Shelby has certainly never done anything for Trump that would invite that sort of unforced reward.

    Based on what Trump has actually said about space, he doesn’t seem at all impressed with NASA lifers. Despite their dustup over the Paris Accords, Trump seems to like Elon Musk. Trump admires wealth building and accomplishment and Musk is richer than he is.

    Trump also admires a flair for the dramatic and the ability to command public attention. He has already seen how little he can rely on career civil servants. Musk, on the other hand, would be a much more congenial bet.

    If I’m correct about how political events will turn out, an FY 2020 continuing resolution will not be the end of the world – or of Artemis. And for FY 2021 there would be an actual budget. And said budget would reflect all the altered circumstances that will have had time to materialize over the next two years.

  • Emmet Ford

    Predictions can be dicey, especially about the future.

  • duheagle

    And yet there are many who come here who make predictions far more profligately than I.

  • Doug Weathers

    A great aricle, representative of the good work you do that keeps bringing me back to your site. Thanks.